Through the bumps — and there were some bumps — of a 10-3 season thus far, Wagoner head coach Dale Condict has seen the development of a sophomore class that bears some familiarity to the outset of the school’s greatest run.
That was 2014, and at one point being 1-4 until the reversal of one loss due to an ineligible player, that Bulldog team with a core of sophomores including its starting quarterback went on to go 10-3 and never lost a game through three consecutive seasons, ending each with gold and a march toward what would wind up at the time as the state’s longest consecutive win streak ever — 48 games, now passed by Bixby.
And here these kids are, playing the underdog in Saturday’s Class 4A state championship (kickoff: 7 p.m. at UCO in Edmond), the eighth such stage for Wagoner in its history under Condict.
“We knew these kids had the potential to be a very special group coming through junior high,” Condict said. “I think they were 23-1 and had one close loss to Hilldale in the eighth grade.
“While there’s a good number already contributing as starters, there will be more next year. There’s a lot of promise in that group.”
Kale Charboneau started at linebacker until a knee injury as a freshman a year ago. Now he’s the quarterback. Alex Shieldnight started all season as an outside linebacker with a touch of offense as a freshman and has moved to an edge spot up front where in two weeks he has 27 tackles, one for a safety and the game’s first points last week.
There’s also Mattson Swanson, who scored on a 19-yard first-half touchdown last week. Gavin Miller, an outside linebacker, offensive lineman Dax Griffin and situational fullback Bryce Steele a starter at outside linebacker, and Tres Thornton a starter this year, make up the group.
Those growing pains included a 42-0 loss to this week’s opponent and the team ahead of them in the District 4A-3 standings, the Cushing Tigers.
That game, said Condict, was a stark contrast to the two non-district setbacks against 5A powers Coweta, ranked No. 1 most of the season, and Grove, which lost a 5A semifinal contest last week. Against the Bulldogs, Coweta won on a late field goal 9-7, and Grove won 28-20.
“Those first two had the kind of things that kept me up all night irritated. With Cushing, we just didn’t lose, we got beat up,” Condict said.
Shieldnight described it as an equal-opportunity throttling.
“It wasn’t sophomores, it wasn’t any one class or individuals, we all made errors in that game,” he said. “We then went to the film, saw what we could do to get better as a team and that’s what we continue to do even now with each game we play.”
Cushing’s Blaze Berlowitz threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns. It was the worst loss in the Condict era, dating back to 2005. Two of those scores went to Camden Crooks, who had nine catches in all for 136 yards.
“I don’t know a lot about how everyone has the rankings in the state per position, but I’d like somebody to show me a better quarterback than Berlowitz. He’s that good,” said Condict.
It’s not the first look Condict and company has had of him.
In the 2020 semifinals, Berlowitz, then a sophomore, completed just one of his first 11 passes against a defense of which this one has drawn comparisons to of late. The recent commit to New Mexico State finished 8-of-24 for 155 yards in a 40-14 loss at Wagoner.
“The arm talent he showed as a sophomore, you could tell he was a special player,” Condict said. “He’s worked at it, spent time in the weight room and done all the things you need to do to develop. I don’t know that I’ve coached against a guy with the level of play he is at.”
Crooks also gets high praise from the Bulldogs’ mentor.
“How the world he doesn’t have a D1 offer I don’t get it. In our opinion he’s one of the best players around,” said Condict of Crooks, who actually does have one offer from Air Force but nothing else. “His overall skill level, his understanding the game, his ability to return, he’s a great player and then, really, every skill position player they have is a threat.”
Since that game, Wagoner’s won eight consecutive games and the defense has stiffened up, allowing just 39 points over that time.
“The word we’ve used a lot about this bunch is grit,” Condict said. “The team has shown it, fought and battled their way back and proved they can go win,” he said. “They’re playing their best ball right now.”
Charboneau said even with some of the guys like himself and Shieldnight getting some varsity time in as freshmen, it took some time this year to mold into the unit one sees now, and it came with the help of the upperclassmen and seniors like Gabe Rodriguez, a guy who he replaced at quarterback this season but is now a guy he hands off to or throws to.
Rodriguez’s middle brother, Malcolm, was that sophomore quarterback at the core of the 2014-16 run.
“We got a few games on our back and some rhythm now,” Charboneau said. “We’ve had guys like Gabe and the other seniors who are there to lead, but we all understand what Wagoner football means and the expectation that comes with it.”
Condict has had some memorable championship moments — including the first time in the game in 2005, the first gold ball in 2011, a three-peat which included a late fourth-quarter length-of-the-field rally and a documentary made involving a year with two players battling cancer — one his son, and also his dad’s eventual lost battle to cancer.
“It would be hard for me to surpass the emotion of those wins, but if we could win this one, bouncing back from that earlier game, it might be the biggest accomplishment of my coaching career,” Condict said.