APPOMATTOX — One’s a veteran with plenty of big-game experience and leadership skills. The other’s a young athlete with all the upside in the world. One barrels through the teeth of the defense, dragging opponents for extra yards before being brought down. The other slips past defenders in an instant, setting off a foot race he doesn’t often lose.
Together they’re a running back duo no team has found an answer for this season. Appomattox’s Keyshawn Baker and Jonathan Pennix hope the same rings true Saturday in their final test of the season, a state championship rematch with Stuarts Draft (8-1). The game is set for 2:30 p.m. at Stuarts Draft.
Baker, a senior, is confident in his team’s chances. In interviews this season, and during practice this week, Baker has talked about the mindset he and the Raiders play with, succinctly saying, with a smile, neither he nor his team harbor doubt heading into Saturday.
Appomattox enters with a 9-0 record in search of a second straight win over the Cougars in the title game and fifth crown in six years.
Integral in the run that’s gotten them back to the state’s biggest stage are the upperclassman and his colleague in the backfield, Pennix.
On separate occasions, interim coach Stephen Castello has described each as a “tough” matchup for opposing defenses.
Baker, at 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, is “our strongest kid in the weight room,” Castello said.
“He’s just a stout guy,” the coach said after a previous postseason game, during which Baker added to his stat line with a 76-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. “He’s a little bowling ball of muscle, and he’s got a little bit of speed to him, too.”
Baker helps the Appomattox offense move the chains on long drives, but he also is capable of ripping off long runs, showcasing one of them on the first play of last week’s state semifinal win over Union. His 57-yard scamper went for the game’s first score. A long run later of 40-plus yards set up another Appomattox score.
All told, Baker has 477 yards rushing and five touchdowns. He averages 9.4 yards per carry.
The burly back’s numbers this year are all the more impressive considering the bumps that have been part of his path to increased responsibility with the Raiders. Baker fought his way back from a torn ACL and meniscus ahead of this season, in which he’s doubles as one of the Appomattox’s most productive players on the other side of the ball as a linebacker.
Baker’s experiences and voice have been important in the Raiders’ run, said Pennix, the younger half of the explosive running back duo.
“He keeps our head on straight,” Pennix said of Baker.
Baker and other Raiders, like former back Cristian Ferguson, who graduated last year, are the ones Pennix watched when he was on the JV team and in his freshman year last season, when he mostly contributed defensively and on special teams.
All the while, he heard a recurring message. “Coaches told me last year, ‘Your time will come. Keep working,’” Pennix said.
That time came quicker than anticipated, Pennix said, but immediately he delivered.
Behind only Baker and quarterback Tre Lawing, Pennix has tallied 42 carries this season. Of the three, he’s the most productive in terms of average yards per carry (12.2).
Pennix, though, can reel off gains that go for much longer, too. That ability has been on display especially in the postseason.
He’s recorded six of his 10 touchdowns in his last two outings against Union and Glenvar. Three of those were on runs of 40 yards or more.
Pennix bookended the game against Glenvar with touchdowns, two in the first quarter and two in the fourth.
“Coach was putting the ball in my hands,” said Pennix, who also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and recorded an interception in the contest from his spot as a defensive back.
The sophomore’s defensive work, buoyed by speed unmatched by the Raiders’ opponents thus far, has earned him an offer from Boston College.
“It’s a dream,” Pennix said during practice this week, quickly adding, “but gotta keep working.”
Pennix was itching to get back to drills with teammates and coaches, who’ve found a succinct way to wrap up the skills he brings to the Raiders. Coaches call him “Chicken,” but in the best possible way.
“He’s really hard to catch. Once he gets a little space, that kid, he’s got a little wiggle to him, he can accelerate, and he’s tough to get ahold of,” Castello said.
Pennix is a fan. “I like it,” he said.
If Pennix can tap into that elusiveness and speed and Baker can continue to exploit his strength, the Cougars will need to find answers quickly. Otherwise, revenge might be hard to come by for Stuarts Draft.
“We want it,” Baker said of the state trophy, which once again is in reach.