LIVONIA — It would be easy to point to quarterback Cee Jay Powell or running back Barrick Slaughter as the key players to watch for Livonia High School.
As the Wildcats transition into Baton Rouge’s District 6-4A after winning the Class 3A state title in 2014, opponents should be wary of Willie Baker.
He’s the defensive end who plays with a chip on his shoulder yet always manages to keep his nose to the grindstone.
“We need to show people we can compete in 4A because a lot of people think we can’t,” Baker said. “It’s going to be lot different. We’re used to going Opelousas way where you’re playing in the middle of open fields every Friday.
“Now we’ll be playing city teams. We’re going to have to adjust. After being in the same district for a few years we needed to get things changed up. We’re working to get ready.”
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Baker isn’t an angry guy. He simply driven and is making up for lost time. Baker focused on basketball as a youngster and never played football until he was an eighth-grader.
Baker broke his fibula in the regular-season finale against District 5-3A rival Church Point in 2013, providing a pivotal personal turning point. While the Wildcats took their first turn in a state championship game, Baker took a rare turn on the bench.
“He had to sit there and watch all the other guys play in the (Mercedes-Benz) Superdome in 2013 and he was crushed,” Livonia defensive assistant coach Adam Chrestman said. “He got together with his buddies. They were determined to win a state title before they graduated and they made it happen last year. It was all business all last year. They’re focused and determined. And Willie is the leader. If you need one guy to make that one play on defense — he’s the guy. He leads the charge.”
Powell, the Wildcats’ diminutive quarterback, is always vocal. Slaughter, who is set to be the next in the line of Livonia running backs, has garnered high ratings in offseason camps for prospects. Both claim their share of attention.
Baker has 21 scholarship offers, including Texas A&M, Arizona State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisville, Michigan, Louisiana Tech and Tulane. Getting that first scholarship offer from Tulane as a sophomore was a wake-up call.
“I got my first offer when I was hurt,” Baker said. “I was standing there in a boot (cast) when the coach offered me. Up to that point I didn’t know who or what I wanted to be and that changed me.
“So did the injury. It put me on the road I’m on now. I was told that when you break a bone and it heals it comes back stronger, so I wasn’t worried. I focused on getting stronger and better.”
Baker finished with 71 tackles, 31 assists, 29 tackles for loss and 12 sacks while helping Livonia win its Class 3A state title last fall, the first 11-man state football title in school history.
Second-year Livonia coach Guy Mistretta said he sees Baker playing even more aggressively than last season.
“I watched Livonia in the playoffs the year before I came here, but I didn’t see Willie because he was hurt,” Mistretta said. “When I got here I saw this big, polite kid with a great work ethic.
“I don’t think I ever heard him talk until the first game at Live Oak. All of a sudden before the game there was this voice I’d never heard. It was Willie. Here’s a guy who works hard all week and then gets excited about everything on game day. That’s a great combination and he keeps getting better.”
Baker proudly points out that he is Willie Baker IV. He’s learned plenty from a different kind of combo — his parents Willie III and Yvette — who own a small trucking company. He is one of six children.
Yvette Baker also drives a school bus. Younger brother Nyrah is a sophomore who is competing for starting defensive line spot. The brothers teamed up for a another crucial job, changing the tire on one of the family’s large trucks the night before.
“Their work ethic inspires,” Baker said of his parents. “My Pops has been working since he was 15 or 16. He didn’t finish high school and look what he’s done. My Mom can drive anything. With all the work and things they do for me and for us as a family I have no choice but to pay them back. That drives me.”
Follow Robin Fambrough on Twitter: @FambroughAdv