It was there for the taking.

Up 35-21 on the District 4A-3 champions, the Fort Gibson Tigers were close to getting to come back home for a second-round playoff game and not only that, but to play a team that created its own upset Friday.

Elk City finished its upset. The Tigers didn’t, losing 42-35.

It was the second game the Tigers had a double-digit lead only to see it get away. The first one, albeit for the Red-White Rumble Rock to Hilldale, had a silver lining in that they would fall on a side of the bracket that was missing the top two teams in Class 4A.

Then Cushing, a team that had a legitimate shot at the finals after getting key guys back from a team that lost in the semis a year ago to Wagoner, got beat by unranked Elk City.  Fort Gibson’s spot on the bracket would have allowed it a second-round home battle.

“Opportunity missed, we didn’t capitalize on it,” said Fort Gibson head coach Greg Whiteley. “It’s devastating to finish the way we did.”

It was similar to last year. The Tigers were 6-0 but lost their final five, finishing fifth in the district and only made the playoffs because the OSSAA punched everyone’s ticket who didn’t want to opt out, due to the pandemic.

This year, they were 6-1 but lost their final three district games to Broken Bow, Poteau and Hilldale, but were able to grab the final playoff rung out of 4A-4 on the descent. They had leads in all those losses except the Poteau contest and in the end, matched last year’s 6-5 mark.

“It’s not talent-wise, it’s about mind-wise,” Whiteley said. “We’ve just got to get it in our minds that we can be a second- or third-round football team. We moved the ball, we put points on the board. Our lowest output this year was 24 points. You got to get stops on defense when it matters. It can’t always be the one who scores last. We’ve got to get better in that department.

“Getting that home playoff game would have been fun.”

The lowest in district play was 24 outside of the 49-21 loss to Poteau, the worst loss by margin. The Tigers lost 27-23 to Berryhill in the opener, 37-24 to Broken Bow and 49-46 to Hilldale.

Berryhill jettisoned Stigler in the first round, Hilldale lost by two to defending 4A champ Wagoner, and Broken Bow was involved in the other big upset in 4A last week, blown out 55-6 by the third-seed out of 4A-3, Bristow.

Moving on to the off-season, the Tigers will have in tow quarterback Cole Mahaney for a fourth season as a starter. Mahaney as a junior set records for passing yards in a game (344) and touchdowns in a season (24), and will have a shot to add to his resume in a second year of the spread offense.

“It’s based around the quarterback. He has to make it happen and he’s had just one year in it,” Whiteley said. “How good can he be with another year to get comfortable with it?”

He’ll have his top two receivers in Cade Waggle and Hunter Branch. He loses two others in Jaxon Perdue and Seth Rowan, but sophomore Rylie Ladd came on in the later part of the season to contribute.

Toby West topped 1,000 yards rushing despite the move away from the I-formation staple offensively. He will create a vacancy by graduation. The fill could come from sophomore Atlas Potter or even Judd Rudd, who saw action on the freshman squad and is the younger brother of Rusty and Jesse Rudd, who ran out of that spot in the latter part of the last decade.

Perdue and Rowan were also part of the secondary. Trey Forrest and Brody Rainbolt graduate from the trenches. Mike Johnson was a disruptive force on the defensive line and Landon Bebee, Tim Murphy and Connor Loepp will create a hole in the linebacker corps.

That’s 284 tackles. Outside of Mahaney with 71 in the secondary, the next among returnees is  linebacker John Lewis, a junior, with 43.

What’s back and what fits will have to travel a while in some cases to tackle. The Tigers remain with Hilldale, Poteau, Stilwell, Broken Bow and Sallisaw, but gain Ada and Madill while losing McLain and Muldrow. Oologah, Berryhill and Glenpool are their non-district foes.

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