By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Critics might have chuckled at Josh Blankenship’s insistence that his team matched up well against a Fayetteville team a year removed from blasting the Roughers with a 42-point first half en route to a 55-14 win a year ago.
The two-time defending Arkansas 7A champs were 2-0. Muskogee was limping in 0-2 with losses of 25 and 29 points to Sand Springs and Owasso.
Muskogee’s offense, which struggled throughout the first two games especially in the run game, ignited in the second half and rallied from a 27-7 deficit before falling short, 27-22. It brought some player energy and also some postgame encouragement from a game official, of all people.
Chain crew chief Doug Fulkerson uttered those words to the team just before they left the field Friday night. And though appreciated, Blankenship said it didn’t make up for the ultimate goal that was missed.
“We praised their effort too, but it still was a missed opportunity. We don’t shy away from that fact and we don’t beat around the bush with the kids on that fact,” he said.
“Typically a game comes down to seven to 10 plays that decide a game. We could show the kids seven to 10 chances we had to win the game.”
Two of those were misinterpreted coverage calls, one directly resulting in a Fayetteville touchdown, the other a key part of a drive.
Jyreece Vanhook, a transfer from Tulsa McLain, acknowledged his part in that in the Roughers’ secondary.
“The defensive backs look at coach (Scott) Sapulpa, the others look at Heath. I looked at Heath and got the wrong call. I’m thinking it was man and it was zone. I was supposed to help up top and I didn’t.”
On the other hand, Vanhook’s efforts on offense helped in the rally as well. He had three catches for 92 yards, including a 44-yard TD that got his team within the final margin with 8:52 to play.
“If I do something bad, inside of me it’s like ‘we’re not going to lose because of me. I’m going to do something to make up for it,’” the senior said.
That kind of drive and motivation is what the coaching staff saw in him after he moved to his grandmother’s due to family issues and spent time working this summer with the team. He played in the scrimmages and received transfer approval by the OSSAA just prior to the opening week of the regular season.
“He came in with a good work ethic and he’s got a confidence about him that’s not arrogant, but it’s a contagious confidence that you know, has really impacted our DBs,” Blankenship said. “When we go one-on-ones which we do about twice a week, that became more of a competitive situation. Because honestly, when they play press coverage he’s a lockdown corner and there’s not a lot of places you can put the ball.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Vanhook tries to translate that into a receiver job as well. He played both at McLain a year ago, starting the final three games at receiver while starting at free safety the whole season.
“I feel I should be doing way more. I don’t think I’ve shown the coaches good enough at practice,” Vanhook says about not getting more reps on the receiving end this season. He has five catches for 105 yards in the three games.
Primarily, the coaches want him getting plenty of reps defensively, but they are coming to know what he can do on the other side.
“If we’re going four wide which we were a lot and he’s fresh enough to go, he’ll go,” Blankenship said.
Defensive coordinator David Heath wasn’t happy with Vanhook’s mistakes on defense but he isn’t about to bench him for it.
“He’s very athletic and we couldn’t play without him. It’s just that we need to cut down on his mistakes and once we do, he’ll be a very good defensive back,” he said. “He makes enough big plays that you know what he’s capable of. It’s getting rid of the mistakes that’s going to make him even better.”
Vanhook and the Roughers get Broken Arrow, 2-1 and coming off a 38-21 loss to Union, in Friday’s District 6A-2 opener for both teams.
The Tigers’ passing game will be a test. Austin Reed at 5-foot-6 has 162 yards on 12 catches and Hunter Copelin is 6-3 and has eight catches for 135 yards. The quarterback is 6-5 Coleman Key who has 492 yards and five TDs.