Offensive Player of the Year: Junior McLaughlin, Baker

BAKER — Junior McLaughlin took a moment to answer the question.

How could he pick one play from the season as his favorite? There had been so many. The Baker junior averaged 148 yards from scrimmage per game. A slow night at the office meant he was good for only one highlight play.

Week after week, McLaughlin punished opposing defenses in space. He’s the most electric player on a Gators roster rife with playmakers. Senior linebacker Zach Brown has never seen a player more adept at shirking tacklers.

“I’ve always said Junior’s the most elusive guy I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “He can juke anybody out. And he’s fast.

“Crazy fast.”

Considering Brown has recorded more than 200 tackles during the past two seasons, he should be an expert on who is and is not easy to take down.

So which play was it? Surely one play showed off his top-end speed. Surely one play demonstrated his physical style of play and the shrewd efficiency with which he gashed opposing defenses. Surely one play lay bare his inherent ability to deliver in the clutch.

Finally, the answer hit McLaughlin.

“Probably screen pass against Chipley,” he said.

Why?

“We needed it,” McLaughlin said. “We needed it. It wasn’t like we didn’t need it. We needed that one, and I punched it in. And it was the playoffs.”

Facing fourth down after an unceremonious three-and-out, Baker needed to reclaim the momentum Chipley had stolen on a touchdown drive to cut the Gators’ lead to 21-14 in the region final. Gator coach Matt Brunson elected to go for it.

McLaughlin slipped out into the flat on a screen play. Quarterback Kalee Ciurleo pitched him the ball.

McLaughlin turned downfield, put his foot in the ground and only slowed down to stiff-arm a Tigers defender as he waltzed into the end zone to the tune of a packed Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium crowd cheering him on.

For this play and countless others like it, McLaughlin has been named Daily News Small Schools’ Offensive Player of the Year.

He has the stat line to back it up. McLaughlin led the team in rushing with 1,219 yards on 142 attempts with 16 rushing touchdowns. He also led the team in receiving with 27 catches for 704 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 11.4 yards per offensive touch, and he scored on roughly every seventh touch.

Oh, and he can sling it a little bit, too. McLaughlin completed 3-of-4 passes for 75 yards this season, and he had a passing touchdown in the Gators’ 41-27 regular-season victory against Chipley.

“We worked on it,” McLaughlin said. "If we needed it, it was there for me to do it, and we needed it at the moment, so I did it. I lobbed it like 35 yards. It was like a 50-something yard, 60-something yard touchdown.”

In McLaughlin, Brunson knows he has something special.

“Junior McLaughlin can play any position,” Brunson said. “We’ve got him ready to play quarterback, but he can throw it, he can catch it … He’s a great asset to our football program, and a lot of the success that we’ve enjoyed is because of his abilities and the things he’s brought to the team and his teammates.”

The only disappointing element of McLaughlin’s season was its ending, and even that was spectacular in its own way.

With a trip to Orlando and the Class 1A state championship game on the line, the Gators lost to eventual state runner-up Blountstown, 41-21, in the state semifinals. McLaughlin still put up 212 yards of offense, including a 68-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to cut the deficit to seven points.

“Knowing that it was one game away, it hurts losing,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t like losing at all. It hurts, and I just knew it was one game away, and we came up short.”

Headed into a long offseason, McLaughlin has basketball to distract him from the loss and what comes next. When he returns, the Baker backfield will look different. McLaughlin spent this past season rotating with seniors Jalen Ciurleo and Jayson Moore.

Come May and spring practices, McLaughlin will find himself at the top of the depth chart, tasked with guiding the offense of a team with state title aspirations and shepherding a young backfield.

Barring injury, the yards will come again in droves. Learning how to be a leader could be more difficult, but in Ciurleo and Moore, McLaughlin has a good template for what that should resemble.

“I played under their wing, but we all had the same goals and the same mindset,” McLaughlin said. “For me being a young guy, I looked up to ’em. Those guys worked hard in the weight room, school, on the field. They’re hardworking guys. They pushed me. That tells me what I gotta do next year to be a leader.

“I will lead by example.”