By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
It’s a non-district game, a point Josh Blankenship made clear.
But that doesn’t diminish the significance of it for his Muskogee Roughers coming off a 1-8 season — and losses to the Sandites in back-to-back years after 20 consecutive meetings of never losing to them.
“It’s a tone-setter for our season because of how it would kick-start some success,” he said of Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup at Sand Springs. “But at the same time, we can't act as if our season is ruined if we don't get it. Sand Springs is a good ballclub.”
Indeed, the Sandites have turned things around. They ended a three-year playoff drought in 2012 and finished 8-3, their best record since going 12-1 and reaching the state semifinals in 1997.
Cody Hale returns after throwing for 2,463 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. The Sandites must replace a few key athletes on offense, but proven veterans return at almost every other position on the field.
Myron Patrick, who started at cornerback last season, moves over to replace tailback Raymond McLaurin, who rushed for 1,061 and 15 TDs last season.
The top defensive returnee is linebacker Alec Roberts, who ranked among Class 6A's tackle leaders with 142 last season. Roberts had double-digit totals in eight of 11 games. Another linebacker, Paden Ayers, had 44 stops and 6-foot-4, 270-pound nose guard Timmy Wilson totaled 40.
“They’re finally starting to get some of the credit in the media that they’ve earned and last year’s team was the best Sand Springs team I’ve seen,” Blankenship said.
In that one, the Roughers were leading at halftime, 16-13, but collapsed under an array of mistakes in the second half and lost 40-28. The bulk of those mistakes were in a mind-numbing 178 yards in penalties.
“Last year we weren’t good enough to all of a sudden have a holding penalty or weren’t good enough to afford jumping offsides and sustain an opponent’s drive at a key point,” Blankenship said.
But this isn’t 2012 anymore.
“We’ve grown and matured to the point where we’re past that,” Blankenship said. “We’re still young and at this point of the season, you’re not going to see the perfection that you hope to have in games near the end of the year.
“But we believe we’re good enough to go compete and win and ride the waves of momentum shifts. We talk about having short memories to put the adversity behind us. That’s part of what maturity is about.”
Another factor which looms large going into Friday is the Roughers’ odd style 3-3 defense which on the basis of scrimmages, is showing some promise while still operating out of its base package. Coaches and players have been pumped about what it will do to enhance an attack-style defense — and some of that has already been evident.
Now it’s time to put it to a real test.
“They’ve got one or two freak athletes but we’ve got some of our own freak athletes,” linebacker Ty-Chris Beasley said about the Sandites’ offense. “So to me it’s all about going out and playing to the best of your ability and if we do that, I think we’ll be just fine.
“We’re very confident now. This is a different group, it’s really the first that has been in Coach Blankenship’s system our whole time here. We realize this is a non-district game but it’s where we want to get our mojo going.”