The Gainesville Leopards returned to the playoffs for the second straight year and the voters for the Maskat Shrine Oil Bowl took notice, selecting four players to the all-star team.
Seniors Izaiah Baker, Draike Sparks, Brandon Baker and Traylen Shinault all made the team and in head coach James Polk’s four years at Gainesville, he’s had players selected every season.
“It kept the streak alive,” Polk said. “We’ve had kids selected every year I’ve been here and this is the most that have been selected at one time. They all deserved it and they’ll represent Gainesville in an event that is waited on every year to be seen.”
Polk said it’s sad the players won’t be able to compete in the game due to the coronavirus pandemic that canceled the game.
“These seniors have had nothing but letdown after letdown after spring break in everything they’ve done this year,” Polk said. “They’re probably used to it and prepared themselves for that announcement to be made. Nothing has been good for those seniors this year and I hate that we can’t get it all back.”
The wideout and defensive back Baker was crucial for the Leopards this season and he is headed to play football at Northwestern Oklahoma State.
“When they ask me about Izaiah, he’s just a kid that’s an athlete,” Polk said. “The numbers didn’t really show how good he really is because we have so many athletes. He can play anywhere on the field. He’s going to bring that energy and toughness and he’s dependable. This is just another award that he got for working as hard as he did.”
While Sparks is headed to Murray State College for baseball, he shined defensively, being selected to the Texas Associated Press Sports Editors Class 4A all-state team as a defensive back. He led the team along with CJ Feagins with five interceptions along with 44 tackles.
“I’m really happy for him,” Polk said. “When I got here, he played quarterback and then as a sophomore we moved him up to play linebacker. Then his senior year he found a home in the secondary and got all-state. He was also one of the top baseball players in north Texas. He had an opportunity to play football and baseball in college and just having that choice proves that he was another good selection. He put up big numbers on defense.”
Running back Brandon Baker was hampered with injuries this season, but he still put up the numbers and games necessary to get voted to the all-star team.
“Brandon was a workhorse,” Polk said. “He had always been a hard worker in the weight room and on the field. He’s loved by teachers and by the community. I was most excited for Brandon because two years in a row now, he was hobbled by injuries and wasn’t able to get to the full potential. I was worried he wouldn’t make the team, but he showed enough on film and his ability to have a big play and other coaches talking about him that they selected him anyways.”
Quarterback and defensive back Traylen Shinault took over at quarterback this year and Polk said he thrived in that position.
“Going into the year, we just felt that he had everything we were looking for to get the ball to the other players as well as contributing as a runner,” Polk said. “Traylen is a late developer. Who knows how good he’ll be in the future if he keeps working hard. He’s a character and he’s a kid that coaches want to coach. That’s what I told them was that he’s a pleaser. I was excited he was able to make it as a quarterback because there were guys with better numbers.”
The Leopards went 8-3 this season after going 4-7 in 2018 and Polk said it helped to have a successful season to bring awareness to the talent in Gainesville.
“Being in a positive light every week in the paper helps,” Polk said. “When you’re winning, people pay attention and that helped them get nominated and get voted onto the team. Their names will always be associated with the Oil Bowl. There have been NFL hall of famers and collegiate all-Americans and that’s something you can’t take away. That’s at least something they can take away from it and although they didn’t get to play, they’re still part of the brotherhood.”
Polk said this group of seniors is special to him because they were his first group of freshmen he coached when he arrived at Gainesville for the 2017 season. It was then he could tell that the sky was the limit for them.
“I walked into a good situation there and it was about getting the kids to believe in what we are trying to do and that senior class is what got the ball rolling,” Polk said. “Each year we’ve gotten better and better. Honestly, about two years ago we had a class that I felt started setting the bar really high. We lost a lot of close ball games. We had two or three college football players in that group and they were good kids in the classroom. This year and last year, they’ve seen that and continued to raise it to another level.”