Fort Gibson and Wagoner haven’t been in this spot since 1995.
That’s before Fort Gibson’s last state championship appearance in 1999.
And well before the four Wagoner has won over the last 14 years.
Nearly a quarter century has elapsed since both teams entered their annual clash, be it non-district like now or district in some rare occasions, off a loss. But that’s where the Bulldogs (1-1) and Tigers (0-2) find themselves.
But, there’s bounce-back mindsets on both sides.
“We’re sitting at 0-2 and we’re excited,” said Fort Gibson head coach Greg Whiteley. “Some 0-2 teams aren’t. But we got better from week 1 to week 2 and we’ll get even better, so I’m excited.
After an opening road loss to 5A Tahlequah, Fort Gibson battled 3A Berryhill to a 26-23 overtime loss last week. Wagoner will be the third top 10 state team they face prior to the start of District 4A-4 play. But they’ll do so with a major change in their offense after inserting freshman Cole Mahaney in as quarterback. He was 9-of-16 for 84 yards with a touchdown and interception last week.
Whiteley sees a high ceiling for the 5-foot-9, 155-pound Mahaney.
“I wasn’t going to pull the trigger this early but I figured let’s give him a couple of games under his belt before district starts,” Whiteley said. “He’s a competitive kid, he’s got seniors around him, his presence in the huddle is good and he’ll get better with every game.
“Cameron (Dornan, the previous signal-caller) can help us at receiver and safety. It’s nothing against him. He’ll provide us help in those areas and we’ll have a kid with a big upside who will have plenty of time to develop.”
It’s not the first freshman quarterback Whiteley has worked with. He was James Singleton’s offensive coordinator when J.R. Singleton started as a freshman. He lost games to injury but became a four-year starter there, the final year helping the Tigers to the semifinals, playing in six games due to a torn ACL.
“I told James we need to grow him up now, and he had a really good career,” Whiteley said.
That’s the plan going forward with Mahaney, who Wagoner defensive coordinator Ryan Keenom got a good look at on film this week.
“I think the quarterback showed some things where you know he’ll develop into a really good player,” Keenom said. “He made some mistakes typical of a freshman making his first start but at the same time the moment never looked too big for him. He’s a good athlete and runner, which is probably why they made that move.”
Keenom may be a familiar name to Tiger fans, but for different reasons. Keenom has been on the opposite side of the Red-White Rumble the past eight years, seven of those as Hilldale’s defensive coordinator. He joined Wagoner head coach Dale Condict’s staff over the summer.
There’s no rock at stake in this matchup, but for Keenom, it’s personal — not as much for the opponent as it is rebounding from a 42-41 hit his unit took last week against Pryor.
“At Hilldale we always kind of felt we had a chip on our shoulder because no one ever really gave us the respect and credit that we felt we earned,” he said. “Now, I think with our kids at Wagoner they know what the expectations are. They grew up here, they watched the run that some of their older brothers or cousins or friends went on and I think they want to add to that legacy. We’ve just got to understand what it takes.”
That understanding, he believes, slipped away last week.
“You look back at the group that won three straight state titles and I think our emergency kicker was the only kid who suited up with that group,” he said. “So these seniors are just like me. None of us have a ring. We’ve got to understand the steps that have to take place before that happens.
“The Pryor game was a very humbling experience for all of us. When you come out the first half (of the opener) against Coweta and give up only one first down, I think some guys thought it would be easy, but it never is.”
Primary, he said, will be stopping the Fort Gibson ground game. Tavien Woodworth had 217 yards last week.
“Tavian and (Jesse) Rudd are as good as we’ll face all year as far as running the ball,” Keenom said. (Carson) Ladd at receiver, he’s a D1 body and a good blocking tight end who when they split him out he poses some mismatch threats. I think it’s been hard to get him the ball but if they do he can give us problems.
“We’ve just got to raise our effort this week compared to last week. That’s the main thing I’m looking for.”
Whiteley used that word himself.
“The way I feel about it, and I’ve known Keenom and Dale for years and you know, I think any of us at this point would say this, but everyone at this point is just trying to get their team going in the right direction before district starts,” he said. “We like the challenge Wagoner presents. It’s an opportunity for us and we haven’t won many of those games. Our main goal is get better.
“It’ll be fun.”