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Second-year Cary-Grove football coach Brad Seaburg made sure during the off-season he identified the leaders of his team.
In an impressive move, Seaburg met with each senior player and his parents at the player's house.
"I visited every senior and their mom and dad and asked who are the leaders on this team," he explains.
While a variety of different names came up during the conversations, one player was a constant.
"In every house, Quinn Baker's name was mentioned," Seaburg says.
Baker is Cary-Grove's quarterback and has played a major role in the team's wildly successful season. Unbeaten Cary-Grove (12-0) heads north to Lake Forest Saturday at 4 p.m. to face the Scouts (9-3) in a Class 6A state semifinal matchup. Cary-Grove, which won the state title 2009, is in the state semifinals for the third time since 2004.
But beyond Baker's 899 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns (Cary-Grove features 3 of the top 20 rushers in the area) and 453 passing yards (6 touchdowns), it's his abilities as a leader that have pushed his game over the top.
"First and foremost, he's the one guy on the team regardless of offense or defense or any position where all the kids look at him as a leader," says Seaburg, whose 20-3 career mark gives him a winning percentage of .870, tops all-time among the seven head football coaches the school has employed since it opened.
Baker is the only player on the team that has been a permanent captain throughout the season. Others are rotated based on meeting a set criteria in the off-season.
"Quinn shows great leadership skills," Cary-Grove senior split end-defensive back Zach Marszal says. "We all look up to him. He's a hard worker on the field and in the classroom. He keeps us all in line. He's always been the person doing the right thing. He's a good vocal leader and also a leader by example in the way he carries himself in school and through sports."
Marszal notes Baker is especially at the top of his leadership game in difficult situations.
"In situations where things might not be going well, he's calm," Marszal said. "We can always count on Quinn to make sure everybody is going in the right direction and staying focused on the task at hand. He brings the team's confidence up. We know he is capable of making a big play at any time."
Baker, who was took over the starting signal caller's role in the midst of the 2011 season (Week 5 last year), says he approaches his leadership responsibilities no differently than his physical improvement on the field.
"I definitely had to step up as a leader," he says. "Last year I was not as successful as a leader. This year I'm a captain and doing a much better job. We also have had a bunch of other seniors step up as leaders. We have great senior leadership on this team and that shows in our success."
Being a permanent captain hasn't been lost on Baker. "I am truly honored to have been chosen by coach and by my teammates," he said.
So just what makes Baker so dangerous in Cary-Grove's option offense? Marszal knows the answer.
"Quinn might be the smartest kid on the team. He's very intelligent," he said. "He always knows what the defense is trying to do. It's the way he runs the offense. We run a very difficult offense and he's out there making good reads all the time and executes the game plan close to perfection."
Seaburg adds: "Last year when we moved Quinn to the starting position he brought something to the offense that we were missing. He has the ability to make plays when they may not have been blocked as they should have or the play didn't develop exactly as we had planned it."
Seaburg is pleased with how Quinn has advanced in the passing department.
"He was a real running threat last year," he says. "This past off-season he worked hard to improve his passing. He's much more efficient. Most people know we will run the ball more times than not, but in a lot of those games we might have three passing attempts and one of those is a touchdown. If we're throwing it 3 to 10 times a game, we have to make sure all the attempts count. Quinn has that big play potential and now has the added ability to throw the ball and help the offense even more."
Baker took Seaburg's advice on improving his passing acumen to heart.
"I felt passing was kind of one of my weaknesses," he said. "I worked hard on it and am better both scheme-wise and efficiency. Coach always says when we do pass, we have to complete the passes."
Baker stresses he couldn't do what he does without the help of the other 10 players he huddles with.
"Having the other guys in the backfield and a great offensive line blocking makes us be the big-play offense we are," he says. "Knowing that at any time one of those guys can break off a big run takes a lot of pressure off."
Baker says Cary-Grove will be focused and ready for Saturday's trip to Lake Forest to face a Scouts' team that lost three times within the North Suburban Conference Lake Division this year (one was by a school strike-induced forfeit).
"We accomplished one of our goals and that's to make a big run in the playoffs. It's really surreal to be one of the final four teams now," he said. "If (making the state finals) is not in our minds, it's definitely in the back of our minds now. We had some breakdowns on offense last week that we felt stopped some drives, which is uncharacteristic of us. We're locking everything down in practice this week. Once we get everything rolling together, I think we're going to have a good game."
Marszal adds playing a road game this deep in the playoffs won't factor too much into the equation Saturday.
"We have to execute the game plan the coaches put out for us," he said. "We've watched a lot of film on Lake Forest. They are a very good team. It's going to come down to execution on offense and defense. Once the game starts, I'm sure everybody will be focused only on the game. Playing there won't matter too much to anybody. You have to zone out the surroundings and focus on your part of the game."