By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Say good-bye to Jenks tonight.
That may be a whole lot easier for those more closely connected to Muskogee’s present than its past. The tag of heavy underdogs, common the past several years, will be worn one last time tonight at Hunter-Dwelley Stadium.
After that, they’re done.
Next fall, Jenks will cease being a district opponent for Muskogee. Class 6A will be split into two divisions, one for the 16 biggest schools and another for the smaller half. Jenks is third in enrollment, Muskogee 21st among current 6A teams.
Non-district is out of the question as well. Muskogee is slated to play Owasso, Fayetteville and McAlester in non-district the next two seasons.
“It’s more of a question of why you didn’t date that good-looking girl in high school,” Muskogee head coach Josh Blankenship said. “They’re in another crowd with Union as a traditional non-district game and they’ve been scheduling out-of-state teams for the other two for several years. So it wasn’t ever a point to discuss once the split happened.”
Blankenship, who knew the Trojans as a rival when he was a quarterback and later a coach at Union, “never saw this as an issue” in regard to the decision to divide 6A.
“It’s one reasons I was drawn to this job, wanting to go to a smaller school and be the first to knock them off,” he said.
The Trojans have won 31 battles dating back to 1980 and 22 straight — on the field. The 2009 contest, a 34-6 win by Jenks at Indian Bowl, was declared a forfeit almost a year later when the OSSAA penalized the Trojans for an illegal player and suspended coach Allan Trimble for a year.
The last three games have been decided by an average margin of 44 points. Last year’s outcome was a 52-3 Trojans win at Indian Bowl.
But there was a time when Muskogee-Jenks was more along the lines of Jenks-Union. Muskogee won in 1980, 1985, 1988 and 1992, and you might say the secret of conquering Jenks was a family recipe.
No head coach not named Freeman has ever beaten Jenks. Don Freeman’s top-ranked Class 4A Muskogee squad won 26-18 in 1980. His brother Ron Freeman arrived in 1984 and was the winning coach in 1985 (21-7), 1988 (20-0) and 1992 (29-28). Others came close, but no cigar.
“Even when we didn’t win, and they beat me more than I beat them as coach, they were battles,” said Ron Freeman, who coached Muskogee’s last state championship team in 1986. “That game to us was a measuring stick, as it was for a lot of teams. And in those years it showed us where we were. We were in the equation with them and Union as to who would make it to the championship game from the east.”
Ron’s twin brother Don coached Muskogee to the first win in 1980. Jenks was playing its first 4A district game (then the highest classification) after winning a 3A championship the year before.
“Ron was a little more hard-nosed than I was. Didn’t mean we both weren’t tough. We just went about accomplishing things different ways,” said Don, who now runs a large transmission repair shop in Orange, Texas.
Ron Freeman had two sons who played under him — first Jason and then Jon. The former was involved in perhaps the most dramatic win, trailing 28-10 in the second half before pulling out a 29-28 triumph against then-Jenks coach Ron Lancaster, who would later become Muskogee’s head coach.
Jason, who kicked what appeared to be a meaningless field goal early in the game, blocked the game-tying extra point and caught seven passes for 97 yards at the tight end spot he kept at Oklahoma as an honorable mention All-Big 12.
“The field goal became memorable,” Ron Freeman said. “We had about 30 seconds left in the half and we were moving down the field getting ready to score and called time out with about six seconds left. But the clock keeper let it run all the way to zero and Ron was rushing his kids off the field to the locker room. I talked to an official and he acknowledged I had called a timeout and had Lancaster bring his team back out. Jason kicked it and ultimately that was the difference in the game.”
While there’s no family secret for success in this game, Jason Freeman, who now coaches at Pryor, said there was an ingredient that he believes generated Muskogee’s success of the time.
“My dad was about toughness. He was a tough guy and a tough football player and that was one thing that was a must for a kid to play at Muskogee under him,” he said. “You had to be tough, you had to be disciplined and you had to have the want to go hit somebody and that’s offensively or defensively.
“If you weren’t that type you either didn’t make it or didn’t play. We had a bunch of guys especially up front who went both ways. We played our best on both sides and rolled others in there. We had a type of practice, and a type of offense that emphasized physical. He demanded toughness and didn’t put up with ‘my hand hurts’ or ‘my leg hurts’ and you got your tail out there. I’m not talking about major injuries but here’s what it is. We just had that tough mentality and players would either embrace that or not play. He modeled that as a coach and eventually kids would embrace it or they weren’t part of the program.”
And they competed, and won.
There have been close calls involving other coaches — when Lancaster was hired away from Sallisaw by Muskogee in 2003, he took a team to the semifinals in 2005 and a foiled two-point conversion kept that game from going overtime, something Freeman did and lost in three overtimes in 1996.
But after tonight, it’s a done deal.
“When I got to Muskogee it helped to re-ignite the rivalry we had when Ron and I were opposing one another, and it helped with my identity having been at Jenks,” Lancaster said this week. “It’s understandable why it is ending with the split, and what I’m really hoping is it helps Muskogee get back to where it was. It can.”
And in some ways, things have changed a lot since the Freemans were here. The biggest was that Hilldale emerged and became a second city school during their era. But some things haven’t changed, at least in the opinion of one former coach.
“It’s a unique situation at Muskogee, always has been,” Don Freeman said. “A coach has got to be strong enough to deal with the political stuff in order to be successful.”
Ron Freeman recalled being at Indian Bowl during a preseason scrimmage earlier this season. He does color commentary for his son’s Pryor squad.
“Some of my friends from there were talking about how excited they were about the split in 6A and dropping to Division II,” he said. “I was just shaking my head saying ‘Man what about those times when we would line up against anyone in America and knew we had a chance to go win?’”
Perhaps that, unlike the Trojans, can return.