MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

November 12, 2013

Seeds for 2014 might be planted now for MHS

By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor

— A couple of weeks ago, Josh Blankenship was looking at next year as a definite “learning to win” year for Muskogee football.

And the demographics indicated that the head coach might be right. Gone will be the traditional Class 6A powers when the Roughers and 15 other of the smallest schools in the classification, none of which have been been in a state title game in more than a decade, compete separate from those who have.

But then something happened, as in two consecutive wins to close this year, one over the No. 9 team in the state in the Bixby Spartans, and just like that it’s a points tiebreaker that kept the Roughers from a first-round date with the head coach’s alma mater on Friday. But because of last week’s effort, Bixby is also putting up the pads.

It became a much-needed head start and perhaps some easing of the critics who have called for a change.

“It’s a new team with new dynamics and new pieces that will have to come together but I would hope that they learned from this what preparation does in a week and that even when you are fully prepared, you can’t just go out there and show up thinking it’s going to happen,” he said. “We also battled adversity getting up, falling behind and figuring out a way to win. All that comes with that kind of pressure, I hope we take it with us.”

It’s been anything but a rosy path for Blankenship, who this year became the program’s only coach to have returned for a third season after two losing seasons and now prepares for his fourth year.

The losses over that span have hurt, but I’ll guess-timate that nothing this season was more of a dagger than his first loss.  

Labeled with an  offensive reputation, his 2011 debut was an egg-laying 7-3 loss to Sand Springs, linked with lingering second-guesses and a less-than-ideal first impression. Muskogee was 20-0 against the Sandites and is 0-3 since. And the 2011 team had talent – it came within a blocked extra point of upsetting then No. 1 Broken Arrow which later blew an opportunity to end the Jenks-Union hold on the title trophy dating to the mid 90s.  

So the coach, like the team, has seen some of that adversity – and it would be fair to say that while Jenks gave him plenty as a player and assistant coach at Union, it was a far different kind than what he’s been through in his first head coaching job.

But now, with eight starters on offense and six on defense returning,  with the smallest senior class in his tenure about to graduate and an estimated 40 after the usual attrition headed to the program from  the freshman level, the future does look better than it did, say, three weeks ago.

Bixby, Bartlesville, Sand Springs, Washington, Claremore, Ponca City and Sapulpa will be in the eastern group of 6A Division II.  The Roughers went 1-2 against them, their other wins coming against  a 6A I in Putnam City and Edison, making the drop to 5A.

Four of those teams – Booker T, Sand Springs, Claremore in 5A and Sapulpa are in the playoffs this week.  That’s two more than the western division will have. But no one will look at this group and see insurmountable odds on any given week in 2014.  No Trojan virus, no looking at 130 kids on the Broken Arrow sideline.

The expectations will rise. The critics’ focus will be sharp and ready to pounce.

But rest assured, there’s reason for optimism even the critic should see now.  It just has to translate like it did the past two weeks.

Muskogee missed out, but eight area teams continue practice this week. For a look at those games:

• Fort Gibson at Wagoner: This Wagoner team hasn’t dominated this year, but the Bulldogs are 10-0 on the year. Fort Gibson comes in wobbling at 6-4 off a six-turnover performance against Sallisaw.  Wagoner’s defense has shown itself to be vulnerable, so if the Tigers’ offense can fix what ails it, this could be a first-round upset.

• Haskell at Vian: A first-round rematch. The Wolverines stormed the Haymakers 78-8 en route to the 2A semifinals a year ago. Don’t count on it again. Haskell has begun to jell and Vian, though like Wagoner posting a perfect regular season, may have not had the tests in 2A-6 that 2A-5 has and the Wolverines aren’t the senior-loaded team of a year ago. Haskell’s biggest challenge will be focus and intensity. It has the athletes to pull another first-round upset, but Vian is used to what it takes.

• Spiro at Hilldale: If I’m predicting at this point, though the playoffs could add or take away someone in the mix, Hornets quarterback Chandler Puckett and wideout Bradley Campbell would be among four major candidates for All-Phoenix Most Valuable Player. They’ve had stellar regular seasons, but now it’s playoff time. Great players show up here. If that happens, Hilldale has a great chance to match or exceed a school-best third-round finish. First, though, is an athletic Spiro team and then Metro Christian, one of seven undefeated teams in the 32-team bracket, looms in the second round.

• Checotah at Jay: The Wildcats made it look surprisingly easy in knocking Spiro out of a 3A-8 titld shot a week ago. Jay will be no trouble at home.

• Lincoln Christian at Stigler: Lincoln Christian rides its defense, but I’m not sure they’re over the 80-point hammering Matt Hennesy’s Locust Grove team gave them two weeks ago. If Panthers quarterback Seth Sandlin produces like he’s done all season, Stigler moves to round two with ease.

• Warner at Kiefer: The Eagles lost to Afton two weeks ago, forcing them to be a road team this week. They’ll get Kiefer, who at No. 2 in the state last week was blown out by Morrison and will be licking its wounds. Warner has the playoff experience, having advanced to the second round a year ago, but the Eagles probably have the toughest road.

 One final note: Back to that All-Phoenix MVP race, I’ll drop Stigler’s Sandlin and Wagoner running back Lawrence Evitt into what I’ll call a four-man race. My opinion though, and that could be changed for as they say, in the playoffs, anything can happen.