Picked to come in fifth in District 4-4A, the Gainesville Leopards had a resurgent season. They were 1-2 in the first half of district play, but rebounded with a 2-1 stretch to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
As a result, the Leopards earned their respect in the all-district awards.
Junior Isaiah Baker was the lone Leopards’ superlative as he was named the utility player of the year.
Gainesville head coach James Polk was quick to point out that the term utility player didn’t do Baker justice.
“He was just too valuable to keep in one place,” Polk said. “In any sports team, if you got a kid that can play multiple positions, that makes it hard to defend them. That kid plays defensive back, linebacker, receiver, quarterback, running back and he returns kicks. I mean it’s hard to defend a kid like that.”
Isaiah Baker hauled in 410 receiving yards and four touchdowns while rushing for five touchdowns and 506 yards.
The Leopards’ coaching staff was also named the coaching staff of the year.
“I was very excited and I almost missed the vote, so when I came back in, everybody looked at me and said we all voted that you and your staff should be the staff of the year,” Polk said. “That got me really excited and we really appreciate it. The coaches understand what goes into having a successful season and they saw the improvement from game one. With all the adversity and just so many things going on, I was excited.”
Junior running back Brandon Baker was unanimously named as a first-team back and he racked up 11 rushing touchdowns and 1,057 yards.
“I mean the kid fought through injuries this year and you know he could have checked out at any point especially considering his hamstring,” Polk said. “I know how tough that can be to rehab. I was excited for him. Last year, he had a really good sophomore year with 1,300 yards and 8.7 yards per carry along with 20 touchdowns as a backup. Going into this year, you know we’ve projected if he can stay healthy, he can be a 2,000 yard rusher no doubt because we want to run the ball.”
Junior wideout Isaiah Gipson was named to the first-team offense along with second-team defense as a safety. Gipson was another dual-threat athlete for the Leopards as he had two touchdowns and 265 yards receiving along with two touchdowns and 170 yards rushing.
“He’s another one that we have big expectations for and getting first team all-district was well deserved because, I mean, that’s a dynamic kid that plays running back and receiver,” Polk said. “He can do a bunch of different things too and he was really close to getting unanimous. It was a good thing for him.”
Junior Draike Sparks was named to the first team as a fullback and he had a productive finish to the season.
“That’s a position that kind of goes under the radar,” Polk said. “Nowadays you really don’t have a fullback, but we played with a gator. A lot of people call it an H-back or sniffer back. He came a long way at the end of the year. He’s always been a predominantly defensive player. In eighth and ninth grade he was a quarterback, so he’s really smart and that’s the biggest thing with Drake. He’s so smart. He notices things that made it easy for us because he just knew what was going on.”
Sophomore Tre Lawson was named as a first-team tight end as well as a second-team linebacker.
Lawson had five receiving touchdowns and 381 yards this season.
“Trey is such a mismatch for defenses,” Polk said. “He’s fast enough to outrun linebackers and he is big enough that he can body up on defensive back. He’s extremely smart and intelligent. He didn’t play defense until this year but Trey is the kind of kid that I think is gonna be a big-time major recruit one day. He’s got soft hands and good feet. He’s definitely a serious weapon and he might play quarterback next year.”
As a senior defensive tackle, Jacob Price was unanimously named to the first-team defense.
“Here’s a kid that’s undersized at 5-11 and he works his butt off,” Polk said. “He sets a goal for himself. You can see on his locker that he wants to be a starter. He set a goal for himself and got as strong as he could possibly get. Him getting first-team defensive tackle as a first-year starter at 185 pounds going against 290-pound linemen.”
Junior Josh Faughtenberry, who led the Leopards’ defense with 63 tackles, was selected to the first-team defense as a defensive end as well as a second-team offensive selection as a tight end.
“Josh is a hard-nosed kid,” Polk said. “He works hard. As a sophomore, he played more inside linebacker. Then we moved him to defensive end. I think because of his versatility, the other coaches noticed that Josh has come a long way. Josh is another kid that will be competing for the starting quarterback job.”
Finally, senior linebacker Draylon Franklin was named to the first-team defense as well as a second-team quarterback.
Franklin threw for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions while placing second on the team with 52 tackles.
“Two years ago as a sophomore, he was predominantly a defensive player,” Polk said. “He led the team in tackles and was all-district as a safety, but he also was about 35 pounds lighter. Then he was promoted to quarterback. Last year, we didn’t need him on defense but this year, because of our numbers, we said OK.”
Junior Landon Prestage was selected as a second-team offensive center while senior Colton John was named as a second-team guard. Senior Brenden Gonzales was also named to the second-team offense as a tackle.
On the second-team defense was senior defensive tackle Shaun Escabedo and cornerback Traylen Shinault.
Senior Alam Zuniga was also named as a first-team kicker.
Patrick Hayslip can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PatrickHayslip