It may be a new season, being the postseason, but for Roughers cornerback Antonio Zapata, it’s more of a bounce back opportunity.
Or maybe it is just a fresh start.
Last week’s 63-21 loss to Bixby came with a difficult task for the Muskogee defense in general. But for Zapata, it was particularly so.
The Spartans threw at him multiple times, and what they threw at him was arguably the top receiver in the state. The Spartans seized the opportunity. Zapata, who has been steady all year at a corner, was a target for exploitation.
“I’ll be honest, they got a couple cats who can run and they’re good,” he said, speaking particularly of Oklahoma State commit Brennan Pressley (eight catches, 145 yards) but also Luke Creeger (nine catches, 125 yards). “I learned I’ve got to move my feet quicker and I don’t want that to happen to me ever again.”
With Choctaw featuring another refined aerial attack, Zapata knows he needs to adjust.
Muskogee head coach Rafe Watkins said he challenged Zapata at the outset of practices this week as his 8-2 squad readied for the Choctaw Yellowjackets.
“He knows he’ll have to play a better game Friday,” Watkins said. “I’m sure Choctaw looked at the Bixby film and saw what success they were having and where they were having it. If you are a competitor, you want them to come at you so you can show you’re better than that.”
That came earlier this week. By Thursday, Watkins deemed the 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior ready for the challenge.
“He’s had a really good week of practice,” he said.
It’s clear to anyone who has seen Bixby’s offense that the Spartans are in a very narrow class of talent atop 6AII, or 6A period. Only Tulsa Washington was able to match up with their speed on the corners and slow what has been an offensive juggernaut.
Choctaw (7-3), riding a four-game win streak, is playing well offensively, averaging 54.8 points over that span.
“You hope some of that last week was because we were going up against a really good athlete,” Watkins said. “Most of Choctaw’s skill-type kids are on offense. Their receivers are not as fast as Bixby’s receivers, yet they have a real good scheme. We’ve got to keep them in front of us and tackle a little better.”
Zapata is reluctant to downplay this group.
“You really can’t compare Brennan to anybody but (Gabe Johnson, 5-foot-9, 160) is close and they have a couple receivers who are about 6-3 and are good,” he said. “But I feel confident we can lock them down.”
Johnson, the fastest of the group, has 62 receptions for 904 yards and 14 TDs. Chase Jackson (6-2) has 47 catches for 1,194 yards and 14 scores.
It’s been a crash course of sorts this year for Zapata, who has only played football for two seasons and got his first shot at corner in the playoffs last season.
“I grew up playing football in the parks, catching the ball with friends who saw me cover and told me I should play, and I eventually did,” he said. “One day coach (Jason) Sexton (defensive coordinator) came up to me while we were doing warmups and told me I had very good hips and thought I should play corner.”
In that playoff with Stillwater, Zapata had an interception of Gunnar Gundy and two pass breakups. He has two interceptions this season, behind safety Ty Williams (eight) and at the other corner, Kaunor Ashley (three).
“He’s targeted more because he’s opposite a three-year starter (Kaunor Ashley) with D1 offers,” Sexton said, those being Missouri State and Abilene Christian. Williams has offers from Tulsa and North Texas.
“But Antonio loves a challenge. He’s a tough competitor.”
Zapata’s baseball acumen hasn’t hurt him. He’s an outfielder in what he claims as his favorite sport, so he’s used to running down targets in the form of hit balls.
Still, he’d like to get a little more love out of this sport before February rolls around and diamond drills begin.
“I’ve been focused this week, and training hard,” he said.
And, it would seem, ready for the challenge.
Of common opponents: Both teams have played Shawnee and Midwest City, with somewhat contrasting results. Muskogee beat Midwest City 19-12 on the road in week three and lost to Shawnee 32-29 on fall break week. Choctaw beat Shawnee 49-21 on Aug. 30 and squeaked by Midwest City 42-41 in overtime in week nine.
What about us? While much attention has been on Choctaw’s aerial game, Muskogee showed one last week when Bixby keyed on 1,807-yard rusher Jimmie Coleman. Jordan Bradley’s six grabs for 145 yards last week was his season-high and propelled him from ninth in the area to fourth in the final regular season totals (30 catches, 552 yards, six TDs). Coleman was held to 57 yards and finished second behind Fort Gibson’s Tavien Woodworth (2,126). Ty Williams’ eight interceptions was matched at the top of that category by Hulbert’s Jonathan Jones.
By the numbers: Muskogee is 5-0 at home this season and won its last home playoff on a late field goal against Stillwater in 2016. They’ve since lost two straight. Choctaw has not won a playoff game of any kind since a 15-14 win over Woodward in 1981.
Vets free, no passes: All veterans with a drivers license ID saying so will be admitted free tonight. Because its a playoff game, all regular season passes have been suspended.
WINNER GETS: Stillwater or Sapulpa in the semifinals at a neutral site next week.