Fort Gibson’s scrimmage and non-district schedule isn’t a walk through Cupcake City.

The Tigers got Cascia Hall and Oologah in practice games, then open against Tahlequah, Berryhill and Wagoner to begin the regular season. Those are all postseason regulars with recent records of success.

If you’ve heard head coach Greg Whiteley talk about it over the past year — Tahlequah and Wagoner have been mainstays on that schedule for longer than that — he’ll talk about the lessons good teams give you while preparing for the district games that count.

That doesn’t change this year. 

But it wouldn’t hurt one bit to get the confidence boost from winning a couple of those. Especially with 17 seniors who have a lot on their shoulders since beginning their march through junior high unbeaten.

“I’ve told the kids from day one, the expectations are high. A lot of people in this community have been waiting for these seniors,” he said.

Last year’s Tigers were 0-3 out of the gate, yet still made the postseason. 

That isn’t the preferred route this year. There’s been plenty of education in past years. 

But there is caution when it’s arguably one of the toughest non-district slates of any Class 4A team who despite all the experience will throw a new offensive scheme and a defense under a new coordinator to the test Friday at Doc Wadley Stadium on the NSU campus.

“Execution wise we’re about 50 percent right now, but here we are in early September and if teams are cooking on all cylinders this early, I don’t want to play them,” Whiteley said with a twinge of humor. 

“I thought we did some good things on both sides of the ball (in the two scrimmages), but there’s some things with 17 seniors you shouldn’t have to worry about.  Again the effort is good, the attitude is unbelievable, and the locker room is great. I love this team. We just need to fix the little things.”

Little things like coming off the ball on offense, tackling on defense, and seizing opportunity  — the Tigers fumbled on the 1 last week and reached the 15 and didn’t score — in a 14-7 rehearsal loss to Oologah.

Last year, two fumbles on special teams led to two Tahlequah touchdowns in the first half of what was a 30-7 hole for Fort Gibson, which rallied but rallied to get within 33-23.

It won’t get any easier, and mistakes like those will again put the red Tigers behind the 8-ball. The orange Tigers are, Whiteley thinks, the best team of a bunch that’s enjoyed a nice run in Class 5A under Brad Gilbert.

Dae Dae Leathers rushed for 159 yards on 22 carries and three scores last year and is back. The senior rushed for 1,586 yards last year, breaking the school’s single-season  record. Tate Christian is back with a year of experience under his belt at quarterback and has three improving receivers in Jaxon Jones, Kobey Baker and Simeon Armstrong.

“They’ve been more run than pass in recent years but with a guy like (Christian) and playmakers on the edge, that’ll change somewhat,” Whiteley said. “We’ll have to be ready.”

Fort Gibson has been more I-formation than anything in recent years, but with a four-deep ground game out of the tailback slot and a fullback drought in the system, they’ll utilize two tailbacks at a time. 

Both Tavien Woodworth and Jesse Rudd have 1,000-plus yards seasons under their belt, Rudd’s coming two years ago after battling ankle issues a year ago. Sprinters Codale Ford and Connor Brown are additional options. Woodworth had 124 yards on 14 carries in this matchup a year ago.

Passing will come off the success of the run game. Senior tight end Carson Ladd hopes to be a part of that, having missed the two scrimmages with an slight ankle injury.

“I believe we have four of the best running backs in the district, even in 4A, so if we can get our blocks down no one is going to be able to stop that,” he said. “Having that helps open up our passing game.”

Still, the change has been an adjustment, as has the arrival of a new defensive coordinator in Scott Bethel. Tweaks have been made, but there’s limits. Coaches will get penalized if they dare try to do the tackling themselves.

That’s obviously up to the players. And with Tahlequah’s playmakers, it is an absolutely essential task.

“We have to get multiple people to the football and wrap up,” Whiteley said.

Again, it’s not a game with playoff implications, but it’s a start Whiteley would like to see a huge upside to — wins included — but with an eye toward the total picture.

“We’ve got the leadership, we’ve got the players to get it done and not just get to the first round,” he said. “That’s the long game.”

And his seniors, while optimistic, are mature enough to understand the short game.

“I have 100 percent confidence we can go out there and win Friday,” Ladd said. “If we don’t we didn’t exceed the expectations that our coaches and ourselves had. In that case we better learn from it and fix it.”

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