By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
On a team that had its share of question marks after hits from the 2013 graduating class, Vian coach Brandon Tyler thought his offensive line might not be one of them.
It’s turned out to be several question marks.
And a reason the Wolverines are 13-0 and preparing for Friday’s Class 2A semifinal against 13-0 Davis is that Tyler has been able to find the right answers.
“We thought we had three of the five coming back, then bad things began to happen,” Tyler said.
One returnee decided not to play, then Andre English, a four-year starter at left guard, broke his ankle in week 3 and has been out ever since. Dakota Eads, who took over for Tulsa signee Rob Boyd at right tackle, suffered a concussion and was out for several weeks before returning against Hennessey two weeks ago in the quarterfinals.
Still, here they are, right where that senior-loaded squad finished a year ago, unexpected as some thought considering it’s a unit with one experienced lineman along with three sophomores and a freshman.
“It’s been a tough challenge — a very bumpy road, I guess you could say,” said A.J. Rodriguez, a tight end and fullback who was thrust into Eads’ spot late in the regular season. “A big word our coaches use a lot is adversity. Well adversity has attacked us hard and we’ve worked hard to overcome it.
“What’s motivated us is our will to win. There’s been a lot of difficult situations that we’ve been put in and a lot of people who thought we wouldn’t be in this position we are now, in the semifinals. We’ve used all of it as motivation.”
Rodriguez, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior, has had his share. There was a limited learning curve for him. Vian didn’t wrap up the 2A-6 title until beating another 2A semifinalist in Hartshorne 22-15 in week 9.
From that point on it’s been a game of survival for him.
“I blocked a little as a tight end and as a lead blocker in the backfield but this was more grinding,” he said. “The rest of the guys have helped me learn the ins and outs.”
Ashton Vickers, a 6-2, 254-pound junior left tackle, says its a group that has molded well together. It includes center Jacob Curry (5-10, 230) and guard Ty Andrews (6-0, 260), both sophomores, and freshman Shelton Gentry (5-11, 180). Toss in tight end Dakota Brown (6-3, 180), who has also shifted positions.
“We had those guys to look up to and lean on from last year and there’s been some big shoes to fill,” Vickers said. “I’m so proud of two sophomores and a freshman who have come in and caught on as starters, and then I can’t say enough about A.J., a guy I’ve looked up to as a receiver and now having to plug in. He’s worked hard to take up the slack.”
The unit has come together so well that when Eads returned healthy, Tyler decided to go with him strictly on defense.
“The other guys had just blended so well from a chemistry standpoint, I didn’t want to mess with it,” the coach said. “They’ve done exceptionally well as a unit. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without their progress.”
It’s a confident group too, going against the class’s top-ranked team, one that stunned Vian 22-0 at this junction a year ago by derailing an offense that was bidding to become the state’s highest-scoring machine ever. The Wolverines’ 822 points in 14 games was one shy of Frederick, which simultaneously lost in the other semifinal that night to get the honor. Both were also within range of national records.
This year, they’ve only scored 501 points, 38 per game. Still, they’re undefeated, and looking to settle a score.
“We respect Davis and what they’ve done,” Vickers said. “We have something to prove though, and that’s what we’re going out to do. We look at them as being the next obstacle in our way of a dream.”
Kickoff is 7 p.m. at McAlester High School with the winner advancing to the finals against the Millwood-Hartshorne winner.