MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

December 3, 2013

Hilldale seniors finish leaving big shoes to fill

By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor

— The power outage, which came with under a minute to play and the game in hand, put a distinctive ending to Hilldale’s football season Friday night.

It probably should’ve been unique considering the type of run a senior class of 18  had – one that was indeed unique to the school’s football history in several ways:

• Two third-round appearances. Before their arrival, no Hilldale team had gotten there once. This year’s came at home for the first time;

• A road playoff win, a 14-12 victory against Metro Christian two weeks ago. That too, was a program first;

• A two-year run of 21-5 – and in fairness to the second time around, the 11-2 mark last year included a forfeit win against Sequoyah due to OSSAA violations that gave the Hornets a District 3A-7 title. This 10-3 team missed that pinnacle by a single point in a 42-41 loss to Locust Grove that had its share of on-field controversy in costly calls, and hurt itself with penalties in a 17-10 loss to arch-rival Fort Gibson in week two.

This squad’s third-round playoff performance was better – a game still in doubt well into the fourth quarter became a 43-28 setback against Seminole. Last year Hilldale hit the road and ran into eventual state champion Blanchard, losing 42-0.  

Of the four quarterfinal games which involved three teams from 3A-7, only the Hornets’ outcome was a close call with the nearest being a pair of 29-point losses (Locust Grove to Plainview and Metro Christian to Blanchard).

And it was one that even after a botched snap on a punt resulted in a safety that gave Seminole the lead for good at 23-21, was still a 30-28 game with an ensuing onside kick not quite going the necessary 10 yards when Hornet Bradley Campbell made the grab.

“In the end it was about executing on every down being the difference,” Hornets coach Chad Kirkhart said. “We overcame the safety on the punt and if we’d converted the onside kick, we had momentum and could have scored. You never know.”

The Hornets defense couldn’t keep Seminole running back Papi White from executing enough. The state’s top running back statistically eclipsed 3,000 yards on the year with a 303-yard, 33-carry performance, scoring all six of the Chieftains’ touchdowns – four on the ground, one on a reception and the other a return of a Hornet fumble that capped the scoring.

Seminole draws Kingfisher in half of an all-west side state semifinal weekend. Kingfisher ended the year tied with Blanchard atop the AP Class 3A poll, with Seminole No. 3. Might Hilldale’s season have ended against another state champion?

Kirkhart would only give White and his offensive line an endorsement of a unit that could be.

“I haven’t seen Kingfisher but I’ll say this. Any time you’ve got a player of that caliber and the guys up front they had, you have a chance to beat anybody,” Kirkhart said. “We’ve got three Division I schools in the state and it’s hard to think of him not being on any of them next year.”

White’s interest has remained at the small college level until recently, Chieftains head coach Mike Snyder said last week. Several Hornets have been getting some junior college interest and Kirkhart hopes that broadens as well. Atop that list is 1,000 yards-plus wide receiver Bradley Campbell.

Like White, whose 5-foot-9 stature has limited his spotlight, Campbell may not have the Division I speed but he’s got decent quickness and his knack for making plays and getting open is something that has gotten similar quality guys to the next level.

“I think the interest will pick up with him and several others,” Kirkhart said. Another among those will be the guy who threw Campbell the ball, quarterback Chandler Puckett – who also has a quality foot as a kicker and punter, was a running threat and had superb leadership skills. Both will be serious contenders for All-Phoenix MVP honors.

It’s not a group Kirkhart looked forward to checking in equipment from on Monday, a gathering that replaced 17 seniors two seasons ago from a team that went 9-3 and sent a pair athletes on to play collegiately in some sport – quarterback Dalton Cunningham in football at Northwestern Oklahoma and Jarrard Poteete as a catcher on the Texas Tech baseball squad.

“This group was 7-1 as freshmen and it was our first year as a staff so it was kind of new for them,” he said. “Watching them as sophomores in JV games they played well and as sophomores there was nothing better than to go against the Matt Browns, Dalton Cunninghams, Jarrard Poteetes and Seth Bolings. They got good practice reps against some pretty good players.

“All along they’ve been a group that was hard-nosed, hard workers and an unselfish bunch. They’ve never cared about anything but winning. That’s our expectation, they bought into it and they’ve been as fun a group as I’ve ever coached.”

It won’t leave much of a remnant for a squad that will switch districts, grouping with 3A quarterfinalist Beggs, two second-round playoff teams in Checotah and Victory Christian and Morris, Okmulgee and Tulsa Rogers in the new 3A-6 in 2014 and 2015.

Safety/receiver Matt Bargsten, running back and linebacker Hunter Woods and three guys up front – guard Bailey Puckett and tackle Wyatt Gassaway on the offensive side and nose tackle Tyler Gober on the opposite unit are all that return with starting time under their belts. Bargsten and Woods are the only seniors.

Quick to point out that the substantial loss of seniors two years ago brought forth some low expectations from outsiders for the following season, Kirkhart isn’t dismissing the notion that this group with the influx of JV players can’t accomplish similar things as this group.

“I feel that way about every class. We’ve got coachable kids that work hard and just love football,” Kirkhart said. “And I think when it’s like that and kids buy into the expectation we have, it doesn’t matter whether we graduate 18 or graduate four. We’re still going to play football around here and we’re going to expect to remain successful.”