There’s a new king atop the School of the Year mountain.
Welcome back, Sequoyah, back on top for the first time since 2008 and also ending Fort Gibson’s six-year run. Not since 2012 has anyone other than Fort Gibson been on top.
There was a time that winning this was routine for Sequoyah, but it’s not that the Indians haven’t been close, finishing no worse than third in any of those years. Sequoyah won five of six beginning with 2003, the first year of the honor.
Points are given in the following manner: five points for a state title, four for reaching the finals, three for getting to the semifinals, two for quarterfinals and one for a final eight finish. Football, being the largest participation sport, gets one bonus point for making the postseason.
Sequoyah had a state championship in fastpitch, a runner-up in slowpitch, a runner-up in girls cross country, top four in boys cross country, girls basketball and top eight in both boys and girls track and boys basketball, for 23 points.
“Fort Gibson has definitely earned their spot, they’ve put together a great deal of success,” said Sequoyah athletic director Marcus Crittenden. “But I think our record speaks for itself as well, and one of the reasons for that is we have a lot of consistency with our coaching staff.”
Sam HorseChief has coached track for 33 years and cross country for 32. Jeff Turtle has coached at the school for 25 years including 14 in fastpitch and five in slowpitch. Jay Herrin, whose volleyball teams have reached state twice and regional runners-up in five seasons, has coached that for 15 and boys basketball for 15 seasons, six of those as a basketball assistant before taking over as head coach.
In all, there are 90 state appearances among those head coaches.
HorseChief showed up in the spring while he was in graduate school at Northeastern State. Every cross country team on the boys side has made it to state and 28 of the girls have.
“They had a history there back in the 60s and 70s and kind of went away in the mid 80s,” HorseChief said. “We got it back and now you look at it, their moms and dads, aunts, uncles and cousins have all ran for me and they look up on our wall and see what some of them achieved.
“And to think that initially, I wasn’t planning on going back after I finished graduate school but here we are.”
Four signed scholarships to Northwestern off this year’s cross country teams. Much of the strength of Sequoyah’s track teams are in distance events, The boys 3,200 relay team has a streak of qualifying for 19 consecutive state meets.
One of the keys for Sequoyah overtaking Fort Gibson was Turtle’s fastpitch program, which won its first state championship in 12 consecutive trips. In the spring, his slowpitch squad knocked off Fort Gibson in the quarterfinals in slowpitch and reached the title game.
“I told the girls in the fall we can’t say we’ve had a great year until win it. After the season I said, we had a great year finally,” he said.
“Our (slowpitch) record wasn’t outstanding but the end result was pretty good. We don’t get started until after basketball and try and get all our games played in a month and a half and ended up playing a really tough schedule with a bunch of teams that were in the state tournament at some level. It took us a little while to get going, but we knew that would happen. It got better as the year went on.”
Adding to that, Larry Callison has won 900 games over 40 seasons, but he’s only been at Sequoyah since 2013. He had no plans to dig in for the long haul, but was around long enough to win three state championships. While No. 1 for most of the season in 3A this season, his squad was stunned in the semifinals 51-48 by defending 2A champion Christian Heritage, which then lost by double-digits by Adair, a team Callison and company beat in all three meetings, including a 22-point area championship win.
His top player, Lexy Keys, had injured the thumb on her shooting hand in the quarterfinals and played through it in the semis.
Callison announced his retirement, hesitated, then sealed it following the season. Justin Brown from Locust Grove will take over.
“I didn’t want to leave the program completely dry, although at Sequoyah, the barrel is never empty,” Callison said. “I just didn’t want to go until the talent was gone and then hand it over.
“I told Justin this group you got coming is more athletic than we’ve had and defensively it should be better. It’s not as deep or experienced as we’ve had here, but he’s going to have seven or eight that can play a lot. I think they’ll be right there at the end and give Adair and some of the other teams a lot to handle. These young girls will come in hungry because they haven’t been a part of the success that when you have for a few years, it’s harder for those who have been around for it to elevate from that.”
Herrin’s volleyball teams have consistently won 20 games per season but their nemesis has been the private Tulsa-area schools where club team connections give those schools an edge. Still, Sequoyah reached the regional finals for the sixth time.
Baseball, despite seeing two of its former pitchers strive at higher levels — Ryan Helsley is pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple A team in Memphis, Tenn., and Zack Parrish who was MIAA Pitcher of the Year and an All-American at Missouri Southern — is one program that struggled.
Brad Jones has stepped down. Eric Kirkpatrick takes over. He is a former baseball player at the school and has served as an assistant.
“Brad was an assistant in football, head wrestling coach, takes the lead on our powerlifting program and was head baseball coach,” Crittenden said. “It’s like what we face with a lot of our baseball kids, both he and them are involved in a lot of different sports.
“We’ve had the good fortune of having some good athletes come through in baseball but how much time they put in for baseball as much as other sports isn’t enough to have that team chemistry,” he added. “When they get into the summer with team camps for football and basketball and the summer conditioning program, there’s not a log of energy left. It’s a challenge and we haven’t solved that puzzle yet.”
The football program was also in a down year following a run to the quarterfinals, but for a different reason.
“We were very young this past year after losing a lot of seniors, but lose only four going into next year,” Crittenden said. “There’s much higher expectations for football to bounce back.”
Wagoner and Fort Gibson tied for second. Wagoner had a runner-up in dual wrestling, a top four in tournament wrestling, and a surprising second-place finish at state in girls golf with a team that returns everyone. Boys track and girls track got top four finishes.
Fort Gibson, which collected three state championships last year, was shut out this year. Boys soccer in a rebuilding year had an impressive runner-up finish. Girls soccer made the quarterfinals, as did slowpitch, fastpitch and girls basketball.
Tahlequah, with top eight finishes in fastpitch and slowpitch, boys and girls cross country and girls basketball and a playoff appearance in football, had 11 points and Hilldale and Oktaha had 10. The Hornets got a state title in girls golf, a semifinalist in fastpitch and a quarterfinalist in football. Oktaha had all its points for two quarterfinal finishes in softball and two semifinal finishes in baseball.