Scouting work isn’t really high on the agenda of either Fort Gibson or Wagoner this week.
Very few opening-round playoff opponents know each other quite like these two. They’ve met every regular season since 1997, including week three’s 30-14 skirmish won by the Bulldogs (9-1), who will host the Tigers (4-6) at 7 p.m. Friday for a berth in the Class 4A quarterfinals.
At the time, both were in search of themselves, particularly in terms of offensive identity. Wagoner was working with both Sawyer Jones and former Tiger Jaden Snyder at quarterback. The loss of Snyder, last year’s backup, led to the Tigers using converted tight end Robbie Allen for much of the season.
Down 23-0 at the half, Allen directed two long scoring drives in the second half, starting with a 16-play march out of the locker room.
Wagoner head coach Dale Condict took due notice.
“We looked at that and saw a lot of mistakes, just assignment mistakes, angle mistakes, typically things you’d see in young players, but I think there’s been dramatic improvement there,” Condict said. “We weren’t very good on first downs on those and, up 23-0, we kind of let them linger. Our guys have talked about playing a more complete game. If we play like we did the first half, we should win the game. If we give up two long drives in the first half, we’re going to be in a battle.”
Fort Gibson head coach Greg Whiteley thought the second half play of his team came from simply settling down in the third non-district game his team had against highly ranked teams in 4A, 3A and 5A.
“I didn’t think we played that bad the first half,” he said. “They hit some big plays on us, and that’s what they do. They’re good at it. For a team that was young at the time we settled down and started playing football. We had to have something to build off of considering we had Tahlequah and Berryhill before that.”
Since then, the Tigers shifted to sophomore Cameron Dornan to boost their passing game and put Allen at fullback as well as on defense.
Wagoner only needed one game after beating Fort Gibson to find its guy.
“We went with Sawyer pretty much the whole way from week 4 and now we feel very settled in with what we’re doing offensively and we’re still improving,” Condict said. “We haven’t had a game where we just completely laid an egg. We’ve been able to consistently run the ball and over time I think we’ve improved in our passing game.”
“Their first kid was a hard-nose runner and the new kid probably has a chance to throw the ball better, but with them, we’re more concerned with the running game than anything.”
That running game would be Tavien Woodworth, now with 1,551 yards on the year, and Jesse Rudd. Woodworth had 90 yards in that game while Rudd, out for several games around midseason, had 58.
Whiteley, on the other hand, sees nothing that sticks out with Wagoner, and everything that sticks out with Wagoner.
“Wagoner is what Wagoner is,” Whiteley said. “They do the same stuff all the time and they’re danged good at it. They’ve gotten better since then. (Ashton) Bartholomew on the outside has become a quality receiver. As a track coach, I’ve seen him jump. He’s an athlete and can go up and get the ball. The tailback is good and once they settled on a quarterback, they’re just like young teams, they got better.”
Try as it might, Wagoner attempted to be a little bit of something else.
“We were trying some new things early on and tinkered with this and that and kind of figured out we are who we are. We’ll line up diamond and run at you and be real physical defensively,” Condict said. “Our passing game is coming off of that. We’ve kind of come full circle and back to what we’ve been the past several years.”
Condict said winning the district last week, which required a win over Cleveland and a loss by Oollogah against Catoosa, was huge in the playoff picture. Bristow, which Wagoner beat in overtime to take the 4A-3 title tiebreaker, has to play Hilldale, which beat Fort Gibosn handily. The winner of that game will travel to play No. 1 Tuttle. Wagoner by winning has a chance to play another home game, likely against Bethany.
“That side has some serious obstacles and it’s always big to get a chance at two home games,” Condict said.
Whiteley knows his team, seen as huge underdogs, has nothing to lose. They’ve lost 13 of the last 14 in the series and are coming off a 49-0 loss to 4A-4 runner-up Broken Bow, the Tigers’ first shoutout in 93 games.
“What I like is we get to coach another week, we get to suit up another week and we’ve done just enough to get into the playoffs for an opportunity to be one of 16 teams left,” he said.
“So let’s go see what happens.”