The preliminaries, so to speak, are out of the way.
Fort Gibson’s first three district games were against teams that have lived up, or more accurately down, to the expectations of being on the outside looking in on the District 4A-4 race.
That all changes this week with Thursday’s trip to Sallisaw (3-3, 2-1).
The Black Diamonds, under third-year head coach and former Muskogee offensive coordinator Randon Lowe, lost to Stigler and McAlester out of the gate, then won three straight over Tahlequah, McLain and Muldrow before losing at Poteau 34-16 last week.
The Tigers beat both McLain and Muldrow in addition to Stilwell to start 4A-4 play and at 6-0 overall, are seeking more than just making the playoffs — just like the last unbeaten team in 2014, a district champion who hosted a pair of home playoffs, something Fort Gibson hasn’t done since, and a long playoff run.
But first things first.
“We’re a better team than that,” said Fort Gibson coach Greg Whiteley about just getting in the postseason door. “We have higher expectations for this team. But, like everyone, it’s day to day, doing the right things on the field, staying injury free and keeping players healthy and hoping you don’t get that call about (contact tracing).”
Sallisaw beat Fort Gibson last year 39-35, and a key reason for that outcome is back in quarterback Jaxon McTyre. He threw a 12-yard TD pass to Jace Nicholson with 50 seconds left, to counter Tavien Woodworth’s 2-yard go-ahead TD for the Tigers with 2:15 to play.
It was a wild fourth quarter where 31 points were scored. That, after Sallisaw held Fort Gibson’s offense to two first-quarter yards.
“McTyre’s a stud,” Whiteley said. “He’s the most accomplished quarterback we’ve faced. He’s a senior who can hurt you both ways, running and passing. Looking at him on film and in seeing him in person, he’s got a good command running the offense. There’s not too many places he wouldn’t start.
“They don’t have Nicholson and I’m glad of that. But they have good players around (McTyre).”
Whiteley has a keen memory of that fourth quarter.
“We can’t give up big plays like we did there last year," he said. "I think our defense is fit for that right now, if we go play.”
He’s also impressed with Lowe and the pistol scheme he operated out of at Muskogee as well as where he played high school ball before returning there to lead the program.
“He’s a good enough offensive coach (as head coach) that knows what he’s doing and he fits it to the talent he has to run it,” Whiteley said. “They’re big and physical and they need to run the football and let the quarterback deal off of that.”
His offense, meanwhile, needs to be able to control the football. To do that, they need to play ahead of the chains, and in the last two weeks, the offense has had its share of the 100-plus yards in penalties in each.
“We need to have a second-and-short or second-and-medium and not second and long,” Whiteley said. “It seemed like it was little bitty (flags) last year and it all added up.You want to cut out the mindless penalties.
"The blocks in the back, every coach in America complains about that and it is what it is. A lot of times it’s inadvertent, a kid spins off and you get caught in it. If a kid is giving effort and playing his butt off and gets a block in the back, I’m all right with it. it’s the little things that bother me.”
The Tigers are healthy and also fully intact with running back/linebacker Deven Woodworth back after a one-game suspension for an altercation on a two-point conversion with a Stilwell player who was also booted for a game. He is averaging 113 yards a game with 565 total yards.
Quarterback Cole Mahaney, in his second season, has 811 yards on 52-of-92 passing. He had 957 all of his freshman season.