Wildcats reach NAIA semifinals for first time since 1993


Shelby Stephens

Baker takes the field before its first NAIA-FCS semifinals since 1993. The Wildcats beat Eastern Oregon 45-41 and advanced to their first title game since 1986. Image by Shelby Stephens.

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

After losing in 2013 and 2015 in the NAIA FCS quarterfinals, the No. 2 Wildcats finally crossed the bridge into the semifinals with a 42-27 win over No. 8 Lindsey Wilson on Saturday afternoon at Liston Stadium. Baker is into the semifinals for the first time since 1993 and the first time under head coach Mike Grossner.

“I’m so glad that we finally broke that curse, because that’s what it has been for us,” defensive tackle Josh Kock said.

Although the Wildcats only scored seven second-half points, the Baker defense held tight in the fourth quarter and kept Lindsey Wilson from mounting a comeback.

“When they got close and got the momentum back, our defense stepped up big time,” Grossner said. “We’ve done that all year.”

With No. 1 and reigning national champion Marian losing on Saturday, the Wildcats are now the highest-ranked team remaining of the final four teams. The Wildcats are now one win away from playing for a national championship.

Baker will host No. 9 Eastern Oregon at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Liston Stadium for a chance to advance to the championship game in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“The only goal we have on our mind is to get to that national championship,” Kock said. “I think, as a team, we’ve come together and we’ve put it all together and I think we’re going to get there.”

The Heart South’s Offensive Player of the Year, Logan Brettell, was named the game’s Offensive Player of the Game after passing for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He scored the game’s defining touchdown on an 8-yard scramble.

“This is the first game that I’ve had my legs underneath me and felt confident running the ball,” Brettell said. “I think that definitely showed today.”

The Heart South’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Josh Kock, played one of the best games of his career. Kock finished with nine tackles and four sacks, which were season highs. Kock tied his career high with tackles and set a new career high in sacks. Kock was named the game’s Defensive Player of the Game.

Baker was dominant on offense in the first half with five touchdowns on its first six possessions. Two touchdowns went to Ladai Shawn Boose in the air, one touchdown went to Damon Nolan through the air, and Cornell Brown rushed for two touchdowns. Brown’s first touchdown tied the single-season rushing touchdown record, set in 2008 by Ritchie Brooks, and his second broke the single-season record with 23. Brown only rushed for four touchdowns all of last season.

Baker’s first break of the day came on Lindsey Wilson’s first play from scrimmage. The Blue Raider quarterback, Dillon Beasley, threw a pass that was caught and immediately fumbled, thanks to a massive hit from safety Darrain Winston. Baker fell on the loose football at Lindsey Wilson’s 3-yard line and scored on the first play on a run by Brown to take a 14-0 lead in the first three minutes of the game.

After a Lindsey Wilson touchdown with 12 seconds to go in the second quarter, Baker led the Blue Raiders 35-16 at halftime. At halftime, Nolan had already caught seven passes for 99 yards.

In the third quarter, Baker’s offense rattled off a big play on its second drive, a 51-yard pass to Boose, but that was it through the first two drives. Lindsey Wilson was intercepted on its first drive, but made a 22-yard field goal to cut Baker’s lead to 35-19.

After a missed field goal by Clarence Clark, Lindsey Wilson countered with a 50-yard halfback pass and a 26-yard touchdown pass by Beasley. With 2:13 to play in the third quarter, Baker led 35-27 in a one-possession game.

“Momentum in football changes so quickly, and what’s important is how quickly you can get it back,” Grossner said. “This group has a pretty good sense of when it’s turning on them, and they tend to make a play.”

After a 57-yard punt by Jacob Tompkins that pinned Lindsey Wilson back to its own 1-yard line, the Wildcats forced a fumble, and Kock recovered at the Blue Raider 11.

Facing a third-and-8 from the LWC 9-yard line, Brettell rolled out of the pocket and began his sprint for the front left pylon. Brettell, running into Blue Raider defenders, left his feet and dove for the corner, striking the pylon in a headfirst dive for the touchdown. Baker took a 42-27 lead, and Brettell sprinted the whole length of the Baker sideline in celebration.

“He really felt good this week, and you could see it in his legs,” Grossner said. “Of course he threw great all game, but you saw when we needed a play he made it with his legs. That’s a monster monster play in that situation.”

On Baker’s next defensive play, the final play of the third quarter, middle linebacker Kharon Brown intercepted Beasley’s deflected pass and Baker took over at the Lindsey Wilson 40.

“We always have confidence that when it really comes down to it, we’re going to make the plays,” Kharon Brown said.

The Baker defense then came up with back-to-back stands in Lindsey Wilson territory and put the ball back in the offense’s hands to melt down the final six minutes of clock with a two-score lead. Baker drained the game clock to 2:12, but on Lindsey Wilson’s final chance, Baker’s Darrain Winston intercepted his NAIA-leading 10th pass of the season.

“We always talk about how it’s the championship teams that step up in big games like that and it’s the championship teams that prove themselves in moments like that,” Brettell said. “I think that’s what we’re doing right now.”

The Wildcats now have a 13-0 record, the best start in school history. Baker is two wins away from its best finish in school history, a national championship.

Boose caught six passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns and Nolan made eight grabs for 109 yards and a score. Baker outgained Lindsey Wilson 483-451 and finished with 254 yards rushing, led by Adonis Powell with 96 yards on 13 carries. Cornell Brown ended the day with 90 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns.

Baker’s defense forced six turnovers and held an offense that was averaging 48 points per game to only 27 points. Baker’s four interceptions (two from Avery Parker, one by Kharon Brown and one from Winston) and two forced fumbles changed the game and gave Baker the edge.

No. 1 Marian lost to No. 9 Eastern Oregon on Saturday. Eastern Oregon, out of the Frontier Conference, is 10-2 on the season and has already posted wins against reigning national champion Marian and reigning national runner-up Southern Oregon twice. The Mountaineers have won eight straight games coming into the semifinal.

“In the final four, they’re all good,” Grossner said. “To win it all, you’ve got to beat them all.”