MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Prep Sports

March 7, 2012

Eyeing the Tigers: Fort Gibson’s refocus paved return to state

— He noticed it right off the bat.

And he didn’t wait to address it.

Fort Gibson had just opened the season with a lackluster 51-43 win over Stilwell. Coach Jerry Walker opted to address it in the locker room.

“I remember we were like 6-of-29 on 3s and just looked stiff the whole night, and I figured I knew where it was coming from,” he said. “We were out there trying to play the role of defending state champions and living up to all that comes with that instead of just being themselves.”

His seniors, in particular, agreed.

“There is pressure of being No. 1 and we were feeling it,” Kirby Parnell said. “You develop into a state champion by generally progressing through a season.”

And so they understood that the defense of a state championship, which no other Fort Gibson team has had to go through, was a procedure built one game at a time. That journey has reached the quarterfinals, where they’ll play Piedmont at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Choctaw High School, three victories from realizing that objective.

There’s still pressure.

“It’s different than last year,” said Jodi Glover. “Cache was here last year and no one really expected much from us. “Now we’re where they were, the top dog. We are the ones everyone is aiming to knock off.”

They’ve learned how to handle it so far.

“We knew what we were walking into but this was a somewhat different team,” Walker said. “We were pretty much the same on defense. On offense we didn’t have the one go-to girl at the post (in All-Phoenix MVP Nana Wallace), rather multiple people trying to fill that spot.

“But we also knew our strength on offense was different. When we could go five guards who all could shoot the 3 well, we could create a lot of mismatches with a forward or post against one of our guards. We just didn’t need to go out there every night thinking we had to beat people by 10 or 15 points and just focus on being us and progressing in what we do.”

And so they went, winning eight in a row to start the season. Then came the loss to 5A state qualifier and 2011 semifinalist East Central, the only blemish on a 26-1 season, but one that ended a 36-game win streak that included the 28-0 campaign of 2010-11.

Walker thought that would be one more unnecessary burden to shuck. After all, it wasn’t a 28-0 season that won a gold ball, but a championship game win.

But he was wrong.

“They were ticked,” he said.

Parnell agreed. “Having the streak was awesome,” she said. “We wanted to preserve it. There was some pressure there but we did it last year when no one expected us to.”

The Stilwell game led to another revelation, said Walker.

“I went back and looked at when we played them at the same time the year before,” he said. “We had a similar look. That team didn’t look like a champion then but it developed into one.”

But he’s not taking anything for granted this week.

“We won three games up here by a total of seven points,” he said. “When you reach this point, anything can happen and you can’t overlook anyone.”

It’s a field that replaces Cache, last year’s defending champion and a title game loser, along with a perennial threat in Weatherford, with two new Class 4A teams in Perkins-Tryon and Mount St. Mary. There’s also Vinita, like FGHS a state regular from the east side, and Anadarko, who has been 1-2 with the Lady Tigers in the Okrankings.com poll all season.

Through it all, Walker has felt his own sense of pressure.

“But that’s all went with the area round,” he said. “My goal was to get this group back here with an opportunity to defend the title.”

But there’s still some unfinished business.

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