He could smell it in the humid air, having just turned in the day’s best round of golf.
Chandler Puckett turned to his coach, Larry Childers, who nodded affirmingly. The Hilldale senior began mentally preparing for a certain sudden-death playoff to decide the Class 4A state champion medalist.
A 20-foot putt for eagle would win it for Poteau’s Cody Shore. A two-putt meant sudden death. Heck, a three-putt wasn’t totally out of the question.
“He’s a good putter,” Puckett recalled. “But I knew that course, and I knew that putt.”
He also knew the feel in his gut when Shore sank the eagle putt to take the championship.
No, no stabbing sensation.
Puckett quickly got to Shore to give him congratulations.
“I analyzed every shot, I did my best and if someone can beat you on that kind of shot, that’s just the way it is,” Puckett said. “I played with him the last three years and I know how hard he’s worked, so I’m proud of him too.”
That was the MO for the 2013-14 Phoenix Male Athlete of the Year. Give it all you got in attitude, effort, character. Then let the chips fall where they may.
“Coach (Chad) Kirkhart would tell me, “you can only control what you can control,” he said. “When you think about it, there’s a lot to apply to that.”
He couldn’t control the fact he was too small to play the quarterback position — a stretch at 5 feet, 10 inches — especially to get a whiff from college recruiters. Yet the All-Phoenix Large School Offensive Player of the Year threw for 2,373 yards and 30 touchdowns — double his 1,229 of his junior season — while also rushing for 642 yards. Those numbers were a significant reason why the Hornets went back-to-back in state quarterfinal appearances.
In a 42-41 loss to Locust Grove which decided the District 3A-7 champion, Puckett had 258 yards passing and 187 rushing. Of that, 184 came passing and 164 rushing up to halftime and a 34-20 Hornets’ lead.
There were questionable calls — a touchdown pass to Bradley Campbell ruled out-of-bounds. There were a lot of upset Hornets after that game.
But with Puckett, you can only control what you can control. He admitted as much after that game, saying, “You can say anything you want about the calls but we still beat ourselves. Three fumbles, one on a touchdown and the other two inside the 30 didn’t help us.”
Matt Hennesy’s Locust Grove squad left the field a winner, but the former Muskogee High head coach had even more glowing respect for his opponent’s signal-caller.
“He is a gamer who could take a game over. He hurt us both running and passing. He was very hard to defend and a great competitor with a great attitude who didn’t whine or make excuses. He just made plays,” he said. “I would have loved to coach him.”
“He’s as good of a kid, and a person, as I’ve coached in 16 years,” the Hornets’ head football coach said. “Just talking about character and integrity, everything you want in a football player and person or even your own son. He’s a leader on and off the field.”
And a coach, so to speak.
“He never actually let me call a play but I’d give suggestions based on what I was seeing,” Puckett said.
The quarterfinal, Hilldale’s only quarterfinal at home, against Seminole on Thanksgiving weekend, was one of those times. Jake Adams had just intercepted a Seminole pass on the first possession. Puckett approached his coach, suggesting the comeback and go route to his favorite target for two seasons, Bradley Campbell.
“I gave them eyes on the field that they didn’t have from the press box or sideline, but that was just a gut feeling for me,” Puckett said. “We’d talked about that play all week. I told coach, we just got the pick, this is the time to go ahead. Let’s run it,’ and he said ‘let’s do it.’”
The result, a 24-yard TD pass.
Puckett’s gut instincts were noted by Childers, whose favorite memory came Puckett’s junior year in a sudden-death playoff for the Verdigris Valley Conference title.
“He had water out about 310 yards and he pulls out a driver and I’m like ‘what are you doing?’ and he was like ‘Coach, I’m going to win it on this hole. He hit it about 325 yards, then his next shot was within six feet of the cup, which he sank and won the thing.”
Attitude. Effort. Character. Much of it was honed but his parents had a hand in it. His mother, Shania, taught kindergarten for 12 years, including Chandler.
“I’d like to think some of that was impressed on all our kids, but it’s skills you really impress at that age and he got that just like my other kids,” she said.
Puckett won the award in a razor-tight battle with Muskogee’s Tramal Ivy, the All-Phoenix Defensive Player of the Year in football and an All-Phoenix selection in basketball that got the Roughers to the state quarterfinals for the first time in four seasons. Other finalists were Checotah quarterback and catcher Caleb Knight and Alex Wheeland of Haskell, an All-Phoenix selection in football, basketball and baseball.
“I’m stoked about the honor but it’s humbling to be compared with them. That’s an outstanding group of guys,” Puckett said.
Puckett’s legacy ends at this point, beyond a likely choice between All-State golf and the All-State football game where he’s currently an alternate. He’ll forego a scholarship opportunity with the highly successful Rose State golf program to head to Oklahoma State to pursue studies and a career in civic engineering. Ranked seventh in his senior class, he’s been invited to attend a bridge camp for pre-engineering students at OSU the week before All-State.
“I’m not much into architecture but I have always been fascinated by bridges and highways and designing that stuff,” he said. “Rogers State is a top 25 (NAIA) program but I fell in love with Stillwater when I visited there. Coming from an OU household with OU season tickets and having been to three Big 12 championship games, that’s a change. But people who told me Stillwater fit my personality were right.”
No telling what kind of bridges he’ll build.
Throughout the years
2014 — Chandler Puckett, Hilldale
2013—Rowdy Simon, Vian
2012—Kevin Peterson, Wagoner
2011—Kevin Peterson, Wagoner
2010—Cale Elam, Oktaha
2009—Cale Elam, Oktaha
2008—Stacy McGee, Muskogee
2007—Londell Taylor, Vian
2006—Vfastv Locust, Vian
2005—Tray Bowie, Eufaula
2004—Tray Bowie, Eufaula
2003—Solomon HorseChief, Sequoyah