By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Week 11 has come to be anything but the start of the offseason for the Muskogee football program.
So have weeks 12 and 13.
But this week, after three straight trips to the Class 6A semifinals, the Roughers have joined the ranks of programs planning for the offseason after a stunning 16-9 first-round upset to the Stillwater Pioneers at Indian Bowl. A loss that represents Muskogee’s earliest exit since Stillwater’s first-round win back in 2004.
“I think we fought hard in all aspects of the game but overall, things just weren’t in our favor,” defensive lineman Robert Thomas said on Tuesday, having had time to reflect after some very painful moments walking around Indian Bowl after the game Friday. “Having been to the semifinals every year I’ve been there and then to go out early, it hurt bad.”
It was also different for coach Matt Hennesy, whose three-year head coaching tenure at the school has seen nothing but semifinal appearances.
“This team overcame a lot from a depth and experience standpoint. A lot of kids became men,” he said.
“For teams like us to compete for a state championship we have to stay healthy and have a little luck along the way. For the most part, we were healthy and we had some lucky breaks at times. But in week 11, we didn’t have the luck and we didn’t have the health.”
With the loss of nine college signees including Oklahoma Sooners Jameel Owens and Stacy McGee, the Roughers had significant holes, particularly at the receiver position that lost four starters. Promising sophomore quarterback Archie Bradley stepped up, and the team had its leading tackler back from 2007, linebacker Erik Howell, along with Thomas, who committed to Arkansas after decommitting from Kansas State in the preseason. Thomas’ presence helped offset the loss of McGee on the defensive line.
The offense struggled and the team was 1-2 in what could have been an 0-3 start against a buzzsaw of a non-district slate of Owasso, Norman North and Union, then 1-4 with then-No. 1 Broken Arrow looming in a critical 6A-3 contest at midseason.
Two victories, however, shaped this team’s fortunes. With Bradley in his first start, Muskogee rallied from a 16-0 halftime deficit to beat Owasso in the season opener, getting a game-winning field goal from freshman Matt Bishop in his first-ever varsity attempt.
Then it was Cole Chapman’s leaping grab in the corner of the end zone off a throw from Bradley as time expired that ultimately gave Muskogee a shot at a district title, winning 25-22 to drop BA from the top spot in the Associated Press rankings at the time.
“Without those two games going our way, we’re probably 5-6,” Hennesy said. “That’s an attribute to our program and kids that had been in that situation. Some of them had last year when we came back in our playoff game against Norman North but others hadn’t. Having been there before as a program the kids know you can because others have.”
The Jenks curse continued, however, as the Trojans handed Muskogee its 18th straight loss in the series and worst loss in Hennesy’s tenure, 34-6. Without the Broken Arrow win, the Roughers would have likely gone to Owasso in the first round for a rematch of the opener. BA instead beat Owasso, the 6A-4 runner-up, 32-0.
Every team Muskogee lost to plays this week, including the least likeliest of the bunch. But the absence of Bradley, who separated his throwing shoulder in the regular season finale, along with losses of linebacker Michael Stanford (knee) and running back/defensive back Brenton Bogar (shoulder), along with a missed extra point in regulation, proved too much to overcome.
“I was disappointed for our seniors who had to have it end this way. Those guys took it hard,” Hennesy said. “I can come back and get another shot but they won’t and I feel for them. They contributed greatly to what we accomplished. If Robert plays with the intensity he played Friday night next season, he’ll start at Arkansas. You hate for that kind of effort to go out like it did and leave a kid like that feeling so empty.”
With Thomas committed to the Razorbacks, Howell, who was coming off off-season shoulder surgery, should play at the next level on scholarship, as might running back Vernon Scott, who finished his season with 102 yards rushing against the Pioneers. Defensive end Matt Messer also comes to mind, as well as others.
Looking ahead, the Roughers face a huge challenge up front with four of the five offensive linemen to be replaced and four of the front seven on defense.
“The difference up front will be in the weight room this off-season,” Hennesy said. “That’s what’s going to produce the kids who will step up in those positions.”
The emergence of freshman Victor Williams as a starter in the secondary and his occasional play at wide receiver, along with the return of Brenton Bogar in the secondary and at running back and Chapman as a receiver, gives Muskogee a decent quantity of returning skill players.
Oh, and there’s Bradley, backed up by junior Mitch Stevenson, at the quarterback position. Rumors began circulating last summer that the starter might be headed to Union, where his mother took a job in the Union school system. Those may resurface, along with the possibility that Bradley, a standout pitcher who looms as a high baseball draft possibility two years from now, could limit himself to one sport.
Bradley admitted the thought of focusing on baseball came to mind when he found out the extent of the injury last week.
“But I found out Friday how much I love football and I’m sticking with it,” Bradley said. “I told our underclassmen after the game that this off-season is very vital to our success and to commit to Summer Pride and be there every day. If I have to drive them all to practice, I will.”
By Mike Kays