Eric Randall leans back with hands clasped behind his head and ponders the surroundings in his office that is part of a middle school library. He smiles and talks about the future.
“When you’re down, people don’t say good things about you,” said Randall, the Baker football coach and assistant principal. “That’s just how it is. Those people don’t see what we see.
“Our situation is not perfect, but we have good kids, and I can see a big difference in a year. Where some people see problems, we see an opportunity, for this football team and also for the school. I believe we are on the cutting edge of something good.”
From the outside looking in, Randall’s statements sound like a Pollyanna narrative.
The cold, hard facts look grim a year after historic flooding devastated Baker and much of the Baton Rouge area. While other area high schools have returned to repaired flood-damaged campuses, Baker High remains at Baker Middle School and will be there for another 18 to 24 months while its campus is refurbished.
The Buffaloes were 3-7 last fall, a far cry from the school’s glory years as one of Baton Rouge’s premier programs from the 1950s through the 1980s. Many of Randall’s players weren’t born when Baker advanced to a Class 4A LHSAA title game in 2001.
Those facts don’t match the vision Randall and others, including Baker Principal Traci Morgan, see. They point to Baker’s enrollment of about 570 students, which is more than before the flood. Groom Road was still littered with flood debris when people lined the streets for Baker's homecoming parade a year ago, bringing tears to Morgan's eyes.
“You can see the signs on our front doors and every classroom,” Morgan said. “They say ‘The road to mastery starts here.’ That’s in everything … academics and athletics. There’s not one athlete who hasn’t heard about the Baker legacy.
“Friday night lights and football games at Wedge Kyes Stadium mean something. When a company came in after the flood, they were told to make sure the stadium was ready to host games. We continue to play there because it’s the right thing to do for our community.”
The stadium investment this year includes new stadium lights and a public address system. Work on the physical plant mirrors the time the football team has put in going into Randall’s second season. The team is up to 43 players, and Randall expects to have 50 by the time the season starts Sept. 1.
“The challenges we’ve had since the flood pushed these kids,” Randall said. “They’ve gotten stronger physically and built stamina. We started a lot of freshmen and sophomores last year. Now the daily routines are here.
“The consistency and commitment level is up. I’m still concerned about continuity, but we’re getting there. And I’m concerned about how we will handle adversity and success. What we’ve seen so far is good.”
There have been team-building exercises, military drills and team barbecues. As he did at Scotlandville High, Randall exposed the Buffaloes to some of the top teams in 7-on-7 drills, teams like Zachary and St. James. Baker played Southern Lab, coached by Randall’s brother, Marcus, in the spring.
“Demographics may be different than they were when Baker was successful before,” Randall said. “But the streets are still the same. The Sammy Williams, the Lindsey Scotts, Karl Wilsons, the Moocks, they all lived on these same streets. If they can do it, I ask them why can’t you?
“It doesn’t make any difference where you are, it’s what’s inside of you in that place. We’re not trying to achieve perspective due to our success. We’re trying to achieve success due to our perspective.”
The Buffaloes advanced to the quarterfinals in boys basketball in the spring. The BHS band is set to play at Carnegie Hall in New York later this year. Along the way, a storage room was converted into a weight room. Volunteers painted and refurbished a locker room. Randall and Morgan said football success is a missing piece for the school and community.
Randall was a star quarterback at Glen Oaks and Southern University. As a coach he is relying on 12 linemen to pave the way. Dillion Cage and Nelson Griffin are among the linemen accepting the challenge.
“We want to bring the energy back to the community,” Cage said. “We’ve heard the stories about the past Baker teams. Our coaches are hard on us because they don’t want us to settle for being average. We have the ability to succeed. We have to execute.”
Griffin adds, “We’re more like brothers since the flood. We saw what we could do. We lost to U-High, but we saw we could compete with them. It was the same with Southern Lab. We’ve got to put it all together.”
“I have no idea how we’ll do,” Randall said. “But I think we’ll surprise people.”