By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Two Muskogee County football teams will begin the off-season a bit earlier than desired, not quite making it to that Thanksgiving practice schedule.
Fort Gibson’s Tigers fell 46-20 to Anadarko in the Class 4A quarterfinals Friday night, when Warner’s Eagles also fell to Talihina in the second-round contest in the A playoffs, 29-8.
But both programs set a couple of fresh, new standards for underclassmen to follow. The Tigers made it to the second round for the first time since 2001 and the Eagles got there for the first time since 1998 and for only the fourth time in school history.
FGHS coach James Singleton will lose six seniors off this team, the most glaring hole among those vacancies being Jake Gandara. The senior running back’s 254 yards rushing wasn’t enough to lead the Tigers to a semifinal date with Wagoner, but he finished with over 2,000 yards for the season, exceeding 5,000 career yards for his career.
“You don’t replace him. He’s a phenomenal kid and has been a great leader for our program,” Singleton said. “We don’t have anyone who can replicate what he did but maybe 2-3 guys who can absorb some of that.
“Each of my seniors were critical parts to this program and be sorely missed but I think we’ve got a good core returning that with a year in the weight room, I think, can have a better year than we had this year.”
Singleton thinks that with two playoff trips in his two seasons at the helm the program is making strides.
“We’ve just been working hard to catch up with the rest of our sports,” he said. “We’re successful in everything else here and our superintendent (Derald Glover) wants everything to be good, kind of a commitment to excellence thing. The good news is that we’re not the butt end of some of the jokes there’s been the past couple years.”
He hopes the strides will help pass a bond issue coming in March which includes an artificial turf and various cosmetic changes to Leo Donahue Stadium, including ticket area renovation.
“We want our facility to be top of the line and it’s my understanding they’ve never not passed a bond here,” he said. “We hope to see that continue and I hope we’ve helped get us in position for that with the success the kids have had.”
Warner had its first undefeated regular season since 1998 and notched a playoff victory over Yale. Its second home playoff game against Talihina didn’t go as well.
“It’s like I told our kids Friday, I’m extremely proud of what they did. Not too many teams go 11-1 and there’s 58 teams in our class and 42 had already checked in their gear,” Eagles coach Chris McMullen said. “We couldn’t get any rhythm going and the thing about the playoffs is if you’re not in a rhythm, your season will end abruptly.”
McMullen’s personnel losses will be heavier – 10 seniors. Only two of about a half-dozen running backs who rotated in the Wing Twill return — Clint Kite and Jake Leybas. Leybas had the 147-yard, two-touchdown game in the win over Yale. Quarterback Anthony Carney is also among those who depart as is running back Kyle Taylor, whose 105-yard night combined with Leybas gave Warner a season-high 488 yards of rushing against Yale.
But there’s help on the way.
“Our freshmen played in four games against freshmen teams and won all four of those, and our seventh- and eighth-graders went 5-2. You could see that those kids knew what was going on with the varsity and the excitement surrounding it and that kind of thing can be contagious,” he said.
A commitment to weight training — the Eagles started a powerlifting team last year — will continue.
“Hopefully that puts some size and strength on us,” McMullen said. “That was key for these kids in our running game but we saw when we went against Talihina when we were outweighed 20-25 pounds per man that there’s always room for improvement. If you can’t run the ball, you’re going to have some problems.”
The other area team to end its season last Friday was in Cherokee County, where Keys was defeated by Metro Christian, 42-14, leaving Hilldale as the only remaining team from District 3A-7.