Small Schools Coach of the Year: Matt Brunson, Baker

BAKER — Standing atop Blood Mountain, Matt Brunson felt the pressure melt away.

A week removed from a 41-21 loss to Blountstown in the state semifinal, the Baker football coach was taking a well-deserved, though perhaps somewhat bittersweet, vacation along the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia.

It was Brunson’s third trip to the Appalachian Trail this year. He said he has covered the first 90 miles or so. It’s a new hobby but one Brunson has taken to with the same fervor his team played with all season. He said he had never been much of a backpacker before.

“That’s my new tradition,” Brunson said. “I just started. I got my bag and my backpack and all that last year for Christmas, so I started at the end of February, and then I went one more time during the summer, and then I went last week.”

At 4,458 feet, Blood Mountain is the Appalachian Trail’s highest point in Georgia. Historians believe it to be named for a battle between Creek and Cherokee tribes. Roughly 30 miles of trails, steep inclines and switchbacks separate it from Springer Mountain, Brunson’s starting point. He said he and his companions took three days to make the trek with 35 pounds of food and supplies on their backs.

For those who have never backpacked, it’s “grueling,” Brunson said.

“There’s nothing like it,” Brunson said. “You leave the car with nothin’ but what’s on your back, and you’re gone for three days.”

The test is as physically rewarding as it is emotionally, Brunson said. He likes the altitude, the weather, the crisp mountain air, the peace and the quiet.

Being away from football is an added bonus.

“It’s nice to be away from the pressures that come with it,” Brunson said. “Football is a very rewarding job. I love it. I love to see the young men develop and be successful … but at the end of the day, when the season’s over, I love to get away, as well.”

One year after falling to Pahokee in the state title game, Baker had been a preseason pick to go all the way in 2017. Buoyed by star playmakers such as running back Junior McLaughlin and linebacker Zach Brown, the Gators were primed to roll through a manageable schedule and into the postseason where they likely wouldn’t face much challenge until they arrived at Camping World Stadium in Orlando to avenge last season’s disappointing conclusion and deliver Baker to the mountaintop for the first time since 1993. Baker finished 12-1. It’s only loss a heartbreaker to send those dreams crashing back to reality.

Brunson has already been to the mountaintop.

In fact, he’s been there four times. He was a manager for the 1983 state champion Baker Gators. He started for the 1984 and 1985 Baker state title teams. He served as the Gators’ defensive coordinator for the team’s 1993 championship.

He knows the path, and to his credit, he has gotten close in his seven years as Baker’s leader.

His players buy in. They feel prepared. It translates to success on the field.

“He’s a good man,” McLaughlin said. “He does what it takes for us to win. He helps a lot of people on and off the field. Game plan, he draws it up good. Makes sure we’re ready on Friday nights.”

The Gators have been to the state semifinals in each of the past three years. They have won 25 of their past 27 games. They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2012, and they sport an .807 winning percentage during Brunson’s tenure.

“I always said I never would want another high school coach except coach Brunson,” Brown said. “I loved having coach Brunson as a coach. He was hands down funny, serious, great mentor, always looking to be the best, always wanted to have fun with the kids.

“There was never a dull moment. There was never a time where you hated it. It was great.”

Brunson returned from the Appalachian Trail the week of the Class 1A state title game, and watched the game with his players. Brown said he took some solace watching Blountstown fall to Madison County, 35-20.

Brunson just enjoyed listening to the players recall their favorite memories from being in Orlando the year before. Yes, there was disappointment from losing that game, just as there was disappointment for not making it back, but there remains much to be proud of.

Like the trails leading up to the summit, the journey to a state championship is a grueling trek filled with setbacks and adversity, one Brunson said the Baker Gators have no intention of backing down from.

“We’re not gonna lower our expectations,” Brunson said. “Our goal is to get there next year. We expect to be one of the teams in the north that people have to go through to get there.

“We wanna be the team that makes it.”