By BEN JOHNSON
Tahlequah couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious start in 2012. Twenty seconds into their game at Leo Donahue Tiger Stadium, Fort Gibson was celebrating a 75-yard touchdown pass from J.R. Singleton to Zach Peterson.
Brad Gilbert, Tahlequah’s head coach, has made it a point to avoid such a gigantic misstep this year.
“We know they’re going to come out and be extremely energized for the opener,” Gilbert said of his team’s Week 1 opponent, Fort Gibson. “We have to weather the storm in the beginning.”
Both Tiger teams will clash for the fourth straight season, this time kicking off at Doc Wadley Stadium at 7:30 tonight. Gilbert said some inexperienced youth on his club has to avoid a huge pitfall in the opening minutes — or opening quarter.
“We have a lot of guys who didn’t play last year, and they have a lot of returning players,” Gilbert said. “So we just have to weather the storm early. If we can do that, I think we’ll be OK.”
Also high on Tahlequah’s priority list: contain Singleton, Fort Gibson’s quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior signal caller ran for 147 yards and passed for 168 more in Fort Gibson’s 40-20 triumph.
“We know that he’s a threat through the air and on the ground,” Gilbert said. “One of our keys is to slow him down. We have to play a more disciplined style of defense.”
With Jake Gandara — Fort Gibson’s running back last season who had more than 2,000 yards on the ground — now at the University of Central Oklahoma, Singleton will become even more of an offensive weapon for Fort Gibson.
“We’re going to ask him to throw the ball a little more than we have in the past,” said Fort Gibson head coach James Singleton, J.R.’s father. “One of the nice things that’s happening for us coming out of the spring and the fall is that we’ve got some quality running backs. We feel confident that they can carry the ball and move the chains. J.R. won’t have to carry the whole load.”
Taking Gandara’s spot will be Michael Richey in the starting lineup. Paving the way in front of Richey and Singleton will be fullback Tristan Johnson
“He’s a very, very athletic kid for us who also plays linebacker,” James Singleton said of Richey. “He’s got some nice wheels.”
For Tahlequah, 2013’s season opener comes a week after the Tigers turned in a clunker at a preseason showdown with Hilldale and Wagoner. Gilbert left Wagoner less than impressed with his club.
“We had a very difficult time tonight,” Gilbert said following the scrimmage. “This was not what we were expecting. We thought we would be a little more physical and sharper. We took a step back tonight.”
Nearly a week later, Gilbert was less critical but still solid in his stance.
“We just kind of came out flat,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t just disappointed with just the players, but the coaching staff, too — and especially myself.
“But it was something we learned from. Once we watched the video, it wasn’t as bad as it appeared.”
Gilbert said it all boils down to practice habits.
“Last week, we didn’t have a very good week of practice,” he said. “This week, we’ve had much better practices. We’ve told (the players) that they have to have good practices every single day. And they’re responded to that.”
Fort Gibson using opener as potential launching pad
There is a faction of high school football coaches that will admit they could care less about winning and losing during non-district games. Don’t count Fort Gibson head coach James Singleton in that group this year.
“A lot of coaches say the first three aren’t important,” Singleton said. “But I think the first game could be a springboard. It was a big boost of confidence last year.”
Fort Gibson used a 40-20 win over Tahlequah in 2012 to catapult itself to a Class 4A quarterfinalist in the playoffs.
Singleton said the goal is to not let Tahlequah turn the tables on Fort Gibson this year.
“It could be a big game for Tahlequah,” he said.
The key to success for Fort Gibson is avoiding turnovers, Singleton said.
“Turnovers and special teams are always big in every game,” he said. “In that first week, you’re going to have some kids with nerves in playing their first varsity football game under the lights. And that’s why that turnover issue is always big in the first game.”