, Muskogee, OK

Prep Sports

June 21, 2014

Top rivalry getting intense: Fort Gibson, Hilldale girls supplying heat

It’s summer and the rivalry is on the back-burner, fine-tuning itself for what should be a most interesting year.

Not that 2013-14 was too shabby.

Come time for fastpitch in August, don’t be surprised when Hilldale and Fort Gibson are 1-2 in the OSSAA Class 4A preseason rankings. They were part of this past season. Both made it to the state tournament where Hilldale, a quarterfinalist a year earlier, won the title. Both teams lose just one girl.

As impressive is that was, it doesn’t come close to the eye-opening basketball season both had, at least for drama’s sake.

The Lady Tigers of Fort Gibson repeated as champions, their third 4A title in four years. The Lady Hornets, the proverbial stepchildren in a rivalry that hasn’t seen anything but Fort Gibson victories since the late 1990s, had its best season over that span in getting to the area consolation finals where Fort Gibson eliminated them in an intense showdown at Wilburton last March.

Both teams lose just one player heading into 2014-15.

“If we are at a point where we can compare in any way to Fort Gibson, that’s a compliment, knowing what kind of job Coach (Jerry) Walker has done there,” said Hilldale coach Scott Hensley.

The rivalry is still one-sided in the W column, but long gone are the 50-point beatings that marked oh too well the difference between the programs: Walker with the stable championship staff and program that grooms talent from elementary on while picking up an occasional move-in, the Lady Hornets with a group that until Hensley got here, had a run of multiple coaches over a decade and multiple double-digit losing seasons.

Fort Gibson also has the rings.

But Hilldale has made the strides.

The football “Battle for the Rock” isn’t the only intense portion of the rivalry separated geographically by the turnpike bridge overlooking the Arkansas River.

“We’ve had a good summer so far,” Hensley said. “We’re getting better at playing together. I always want to focus on defense in the summer, defensive schemes and tactics to help you grow together as a team and I’ve been really pleased so far. We’ve gone to Ada for a camp and had our own team camp and we’ve held our own against some really good programs.”

Both teams return two All-Phoenix players. For Hilldale, it’s the last two Newcomers of the Year, junior Katie Kirkhart (12 points per game) and sophomore Kenzie Mize (10 ppg). For Fort Gibson, seniors Desiree Phipps (12 ppg) and Allie Glover, whose 27-foot basket with seconds to play proved to be the game-winner in a wild come-from-behind win against Anadarko, are back.

Casady Mills is Hilldale’s team captain in basketball and also a part of the softball team.

“It felt good to have that year. Everyone was real proud of us. A lot of people said they’d come watch us play and we had a great crowd at Wilburton,” she said. “We want to take the next step.”

Jerry Walker isn’t discounting their ability to do that.

“In all my years, they’ve had good basketball players and good athletes come and go but as a group, none has been more talented basketball wise than the one last year and the group that will return,” the Fort Gibson coach said. “It’s as good and deep as Hilldale has ever had.”

“I think anytime you win a championship in anything, it breeds winning and they did that in fastpitch with many of the same girls. Scott has put them in a position to be successful by doing the right things. Any time you’ve ended your season at the hands of an eventual state champion, you’ve had a successful season. They just happened to be in our area tournament. If they’d made it through another area they could have been the second-best team at state. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re area finalists in the same area next season.”

Both softball teams are accustomed to winning, but this is different. Last year, Fort Gibson won two of the three regular season meetings, all being shutout victories. Fort Gibson was No. 3 when it knocked off top-ranked Hilldale on Sept. 17 in the rubber game of three between the two and finished the regular season No. 2 behind the Lady Hornets.

“They’re good, we’re good,” said Hilldale softball coach Darren Riddle. “I don’t put much stock in the rivalry. It’s there, but I’m competitive no matter what and the girls I have are too. I prefer to keep their focus on the game no matter who we’re playing. It’s fortunate for this side of the state that both are as good as we are and that makes it good for any rivalry.”

The top two players in the All-Phoenix MVP balloting are back. Destiny Riddle, the coach’s daughter, has verbally committed to play at Southeastern Oklahoma next season. The senior had a 0.94 ERA in 171 1/3 innings with 201 strikeouts last year. Madison Higley had a 0.61 ERA and 318 strikeouts in 206 innings.

Hilldale junior third baseman McKensie Plant hit .419 with 33 RBIs. She and Fort Gibson catcher Mackenzie Williams, a senior who hit .482, also made the team.

“They beat us in the regular season, but none of that counts when you’re at state,” Mills said. “We know they’re good but our goal is to go back and do what we did last year. Come basketball, they know we now come ready to play. I wouldn’t say there are a lot of friends between the two teams.  I don’t know. At times there’s not a lot of love between us.”

It all depends, said Williams.

“It’s definitely strained but to me I get along with the Hilldale girls because I played with most of them from 6-and-under up on the IMPACT traveling team,” she said. “Knowing each other, we want to beat each other so much when we’re facing each other. We beat them two of three times last year and watched them win state. They earned that but in our minds we still believe one-on-one we’re better. They have good players but I think our fire will have a little more flame. We want to prove we’re better.”

Jaime Snyder, who first started coaching at Hilldale before moving to her alma mater at FGHS to take over fastpitch, is the wife of Jason Snyder, the youth pastor at Timothy Baptist in Muskogee. The crowds of youth on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights are a mix of Muskogee, Hilldale and Fort Gibson athletes and students.

“It’s a game and my job is to take all the emotion that goes into that game and use it for good and take all the negative drama that could potentially go into that game and downplay it and just focus on performing,” she said.

“At church, you don’t want this girl to lose or that girl to lose but it’s going to happen. But from what I try to do on the field, I want the girls to play with enough class and character that they all feel comfortable coming to youth meetings without feeling any bad blood.”

The Hornets’ junior high softball program hasn’t been beat in two seasons. Hilldale’s ninth-grade basketball team was undefeated last year and the eighth grade lost three games. Fort Gibson has had winning seasons in each.

It just isn’t restricted to these sports.

The Lady Hornets won the last two 4A state golf titles and has plenty of firepower returning. It’s the same with the Lady Tigers, the runner-up last season.

Then, soccer is budding into a battle. Hilldale in its third season in the sport last spring made the postseason, while Fort Gibson was quarterfinalists after gaining a spot in the state finals two seasons ago.

“All down the line, and not just when The Rock is at stake,” Snyder said, “it’s becoming a really good rivalry.”

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