By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Jake Gandara remembers the day he went crying to his mom — the day that would ultimately define him as a football player.
“My cousins live next to me and my next-door neighbors were about 6 years older than me. We all went to church together and school together and we played ball together in my big rectangular back yard which was great for football,” he said.
“Me being the youngest and the smallest, I had to learn to run side to side and juke people, you know, work on being quick-footed. I got pretty good at it playing with these guys every day since first grade.”
But it took awhile, and some lumps and bumps, to get there. As he tells it, when he was 6 and just getting used to it, one of those neighbors, Paul Kent, tackled him hard.
“It busted my front teeth out. I went crying to my mom (Teresa Gandara) and she stopped the bleeding and all but as soon as she did she told me, ‘you get back out there and tough it up and prove to those boys you can play with them.’” he said. “From that point, I had a chip on my shoulder. Not only did I need to juke, but I needed to be tough.”
Gandara’s chip was there this year as he ran for 2,234 yards and 30 touchdowns. He helped the Fort Gibson Tigers to their best season since the 1999 Class 4A state finals year as they fell to eventual state finalist Anadarko in the quarterfinal round. His performance earned him the vote as the Most Valuable Player on the All-Phoenix Football Team, selected by members of the Phoenix staff and support staff as well as area coaches.
Juke, he still did. He had a season-high 397-yard game against Sallisaw in week 10, setting a school record in the process. He also had four 200-plus yard outings and five 100 or more. He missed 100 by less than 10 yards in the first two games of the season.
Gandara retained that toughness as well, playing through the pain of two ligament tears on one ankle and a bone contusion on the heel — suffered not on the football field, but playing basketball with those friends.
“I thought it was just a sprain when I did it, then I finished summer pride and it was really hurting me,” he said. “I rested it in two scrimmages then we taped it, braced it, then about the Catoosa game (in week three) it was still hurting.”
It was then that a Tulsa area doctor who has experience working with college and professional athletes made the diagnosis.
One ankle ligament, Gandara said, was “hanging by a string.” Any wrong move would cause it to snap. Surgery was recommended, then or at the end of the season.
Either way it brought on a bout with depression. A momentary one.
“I didn’t want to have surgery at all,” he said. “I came to the conclusion this was for the family and I didn’t think God was going to give up on it. I rehabbed every day during the season and my family and I prayed a lot.”
He kept wearing the tape and brace. Toward the end of the season, the pain disappeared. And so would the need for surgery.
Seeing another doctor in Oklahoma City at the end of the season, he went through a full battery of tests. No problems could be detected. The ligament had healed.
“Over time it got stronger with the rehab but I truly believe it was a God thing,” said the son of the pastor at First Baptist Church of Fort Gibson, Danny Gandara.
James Singleton, the Fort Gibson coach, sure felt the anointing.
“Kids like him, the kids that can impact a game like he does, don’t come along often,” he said. “We’re down 21-0 in that game to Sallisaw and he touches the ball three times and it’s tied up.
“His body awareness, his vision and the way he could break tackles are things that as a coach you’d like to say ‘yeah, we coached that into him’ but that isn’t the case here. Being his coach, I got to admit there were times that I’d just step out of that and just take it all in watching him perform.”
Gandara last week gave his verbal commitment to play next season at Central Oklahoma.
Stigler’s Chris Risenhoover earned Coach of the Year honors.
Risenhoover’s Panthers went 10-3 and three rounds deep into the postseason, having their best season in four decades. In doing so, he also led the team through two stunning tragedies — the death of two players, Cody Cassinger in July and Gordon Parsons in September.
“Those two families helped us get through this season. To me they get that credit,” he said. “They were there for our kids throughout the year. Compounding the emotional strain, their kids were part of the talent we had returning and left holes that way as well.
“But we battled through it. We lost a game at Checotah that we felt like would keep us from one of our goals, which was winning a district championship. But in the next two weeks in practice and games, these kids took it to the next level and we kept it there until we ran into Kingfisher (in the quarterfinals).”
His quarterback, Cade Shearwood, credits his coach with keeping the team together.
“He never let go of his high expectations for us. He was demanding, but he also showed us he loved us and supported us as people,” he said.
Shearwood (1,769 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing, 2,018 yards and 20 TDs passing) repeated as the Large School Offensive Player of the Year. He finished second to Gandara in the MVP voting. Shearwood’s selection was from among half of the 20 area schools which are 3A and above.
“The Lord’s blessed me, because I know how good some of these other guys are,” he said.
Most noticeable in 2012 was his development as a passer, something he also said was a divine intervention.
“I did things like triceps development, handle pulls with my throwing arm but I’d done that before,” he said. “And I worked on my throwing motion but to me it just suddenly started happening in spring ball and I realized I hadn’t come close to throwing like this. in the past.”
Risenhoover, a native of Stigler who played there himself, called Shearwood the “best player to ever come through Stigler High School.” Shearwood has verbally committed to play football at Central Oklahoma as a defensive back (he had nine interceptions in his high school career) or as a skill position other than quarterback.
“His throwing days are probably over,” Risenhoover said. “But what he did to make himself into a passer just capped a great career, the best ever here in my book.”
Vian’s Rowdy Simon (132 tackles) was chosen Small School Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. Simon, a linebacker who had an outstanding year as a running back as well, was a very close fourth in the MVP voting.
“To repeat is pretty cool,” he said.
Simon’s numbers are deceiving. He played about half of every game in the regular season as the Wolverines outscored opponents 59-6 in a 13-1 2A semifinal season.
“Had our schedule been tougher his numbers would have been better because that’s the kind of player he was for us. His value on both sides of the ball were immeasurable,” Vian coach Brandon Tyler said.
Simon is also being recruited by Air Force. Tulsa has shown interest and a number of Division II schools are heavy in pursuit.
An area first
Simon’s part-time work might have helped pave the way for a guy who blocked for him all that time to be the first offensive lineman ever to be honored as either a Player of the Year or MVP — University of Tulsa-bound Rob Boyd, like Simon, a four-year starter for the Wolverines.
“Honestly it does feel weird considering this usually goes to a skill guy,” Boyd said. “This guy (Simon) pushed me every day in the locker room to be the player I was and it was a pleasure blocking for him.”
“I never dreamed an OL would get this but for him to get the recognition it just shows people pay attention to 2A football. He’s been a dominating force up front and obviously being a guy who is going D1 speaks for itself,” Tyler said.
A pair of Hornets
Hilldale, one of three schools with five All-Phoenix selections off a 3A quarterfinal squad, had two of the primary award winners in linebacker Josh Giem (168 tackles, 11 for losses, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups), voted the Large School Defensive Player of the Year, and wide receiver Bradley Campbell, the Newcomer of the Year.
“It’s sweet. A lot of good players are out there,” said Giem, who is on several D2 program radars.
His coach Chad Kirkhart believes that list starts with Giem.
“When you consider the qualities people think a linebacker needs to have, Josh has all of those but first and foremost, he's a good, natural tackler and has been since he's been a part of this team for three years,” Kirkhart said. “He's always around the football.”
Campbell had a growing spurt of a few inches that encouraged him to return to a game he hadn’t been a part of since his freshman year. He responded as a junior by catching a team-leading 30 passes for 594 yards and defensively, had 43 tackles, five interceptions and five pass breakups as a safety.
“Last summer I got to playing catch and talked myself into coming back,” he said. “It’s been crazy.”
“We knew before that he had good hands and he showed that,” Kirkhart said. “I think he'll only get better and I’m glad he's got another year.”
Hildale, 4A semifinalist Wagoner and Stigler led in selections with five each.
Wagoner running back Lawrence Evitt (2,980 yards and 35 touchdowns) was third in the MVP voting. The junior made the team at running back. Joining him was offensive lineman Marcus Jones, linebacker T.J. Ponds (a repeat selection), defensive back Denton Bosco and Kerwin Thomas, who played in eight games before being lost with a shoulder injury, gaining the first Purple Heart designation since 2010.
Hilldale also had offensive lineman Trandon Boylan, linebacker Jamaul Cullom and Miles Jackson as a return specialist. Stigler added Colton Shearwood at wide receiver, Seth Sandlin as an all-purpose athlete and Ryan Echelle, the top vote-getter among defensive backs.
Fort Gibson had four players. Joining Gandara was Andrew Brestel on the offensive line, Ned Adair at tight end, and defensive lineman Jon Terronez.
Vian also landed Landon Decker as a defensive back, giving the Wolverines three selections. That’s also how many Sequoyah had as Brayden Scott was picked as quarterback, Tanner Sheets was chosen to the offensive line and Ryan Helsley was among the defensive backs picked.
Despite winning just one game, Muskogee had three on the team — two on the defensive line. Tramal Ivy was the top vote-getter on the defensive line by a narrow margin. UCO-bound Dillon Rice also made it as did Preston Soper as punter. Rice is a repeat selection, Soper made it in 2010.
Checotah had two make the team — including the leading vote-getter at receiver in Deondre Owens, who also made the team for a second consecutive year. Denver Berry was among the defensive linemen chosen.
Warner, which posted a 10-0 regular season before falling in the second round of the Class A playoffs, got two Eagles on the squad. Luke Moses was tabbed as an offensive lineman and Justin Wright, a free safety, as a defensive back.
Keys also got a pair on the squad in linebacker Tyler Blankenship and kicker J.J. Ozturk.
Tahlequah running back Mason McMillan, Gore receiver Ben Smith and Haskell linebacker Britt Williams rounded out the squad.