MARYVILLE, Mo. — In the mass chaos of the field-storming, Northwest senior Phil Jackson II embraced junior quarterback Jonathan Baker on the midfield logo at Bearcat Stadium.
In the moments following a 35-20 victory over Ferris State in the Division II semifinal, the bright lights casted a glow on Mel Tjeerdsma Field and Baker, a former Maryville Spoofhound.
On the biggest stage of the season, his number was called. Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Kyle Zimmerman, who beat out the competition to earn the starting gig, went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter and sported sweats and a sling while Baker and junior Randy Schmidt went to work as signal-callers.
Prior to Saturday, Baker had thrown just 31 career passes, mostly in garbage time with the Bearcats (14-0) well in control of their opponents. His coming out party saw the “townie” complete 18 of 24 passes for 139 yards.
In that moment at midfield, Jackson shared encouragement with the star of the night.
“That’s how you step up, boy. Man, that’s what your preparation do,” Jackson said to Baker while embracing him. “You always stuck in there, baby. Good job, man. Way to come in here and show people what you can do. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
Baker’s day in the national spotlight began with him going 6-for-6. Coach Adam Dorrel could tell his backup was ready on the sideline.
“It’s just kinda magical. I’m very proud of him,” Dorrel said. “He just kinda had that look in his eye on the sideline, it was cool to see. He was locked in and he was very confident. You could tell that immediately. He doesn’t have that ‘deer in a headlight’ look.”
Schmidt completed 4 of 5 pass attempts for 26 yards, though he kept Ferris State on its heels with his rushing poise.
The quarterback-turned-receiver rushed 13 times for a game-high 71 yards and the game’s opening touchdown on third-and-goal. On a night when Northwest converted 11 of 17 third downs, the backup duo kept six drives alive with conversions.
“We had a key that 12 was obviously the better runner, 15 was the better passer,” Ferris State defensive lineman Zach Sieler said. “It kinda actually helped us. We knew what was coming.”
While the Bulldogs had ideas of how to slow down the Bearcats, the task proved tough. It showed most in the game’s tightest situation.
With a 21-20 lead in the third quarter, Baker and Schmidt combined to go 6-for-7 en route to a Cameron Wilcox plunging score.
The hometown product felt an array of emotions when his No. 15 was called upon to lead a team seeking back-to-back perfect seasons and championships.
“Disappointment for Zimmy, that’s the main thing. If you guys only knew the work he does behind the scenes, you could just tell there’s a sense of air released from our guys just because it was him and the senior leader he is. But that doesn’t last long,” Baker said. “You gotta refocus. Coach Dorrel always talks about next man up, doing your 1/11th and that’s the mentality I had going in there. He’s just been bringing up all week about being there for your seniors, don’t let them down in a game like this.”
It came down to an assortment of Bearcats to fill in in the case of injuries, as defensive end Collin Bevins, receiver George Sehl and defensive back Marcus Jones also left the game with knocks.
“You kinda just rally the troops,” senior linebacker Jacob Vollstedt said. “You talk about it. Nobody’s trying to do too much, though; that’s really important. Plays will come to guys and they’ll make them, but you can try to overdo it. We just did a phenomenal job stepping up when our number was called.”
It’s unsure on the status of Northwest’s injured stars as preparation for a second straight trip to Children’s Mercy Park begins. But for one night, Baker is just living in the moment before his number is possibly called once again.
“When you spend 365 days, four years now, with these guys, you know how much it means to them and how much it means to me,” Baker said. “That’s what you’ve gotta do.”
“It’s a proud feeling right now. There’s no doubt about it. I can’t help but smile because we’re going to Kansas City.”