By BEN JOHNSON
Winning hasn’t come easy for Tahlequah football teams over the past decade. Victories have been few and far between.
In fact, the last time Tahlequah finished a season with more wins than losses was 2000, when Cody W. Keys ran for more than a 1,000 yards and Chris Polson was just shy of the 1,000-yard receiving mark as the Tigers polished off a 7-4 campaign.
It’s been quite awhile.
Posting winning records and appearing in the playoffs have been foreign to Tahlequah ever since the United States last hosted any kind of Olympics (see: Salt Lake City in 2002). And don’t think that Tahlequah coaches and players aren’t aware of that as the 2013 season approaches.
“We think we’ve got a group of guys that are willing to turn the corner and get that accomplished,” Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said of posting a winning record. “We’re excited about the opportunity, but we know we won’t be favored in one single game and we’ve got to come ready to play.”
Calculating victories goes beyond the talent that Tahlequah will have in 2013. Some of that talent includes Colton Wright (running back/linebacker), Brandon Conrad (running back/cornerback), David Dick (quarterback), Will Carlile (free safety), Reese Davis (linebacker), Wesley Rivas (defensive tackle) and Charlie Lamons (offensive line).
Gilbert said it will take a combination of those players and the Tigers playing for one another to accelerate the number in Tahlequah’s win column this season.
“They’ve got to be here. Dependability is extremely important,” Gilbert said. “They’ve got to come and play for the guy next to them. That’s our team motto: ‘the man next to me.’ They’ve got to put their selfish ways aside and focus upon what’s best for the football team.”
The Tigers are coming off a 1-9 campaign in 2012, picking up the only victory of the season against Grove in the first week of District 5A-4 play. The most glaring number from last season was 36.2 — as in the average point total of Tahlequah’s opponents.
That’s something the Tigers are out to reverse when Fort Gibson comes calling to open the season on Sept. 6.
“I think we can be really good because we’re bringing mostly everyone back,” Conrad said of Tahlequah’s defense. “Most of the people we lost were on the line. They were big, but everyone else is coming back out of that group.”
One benefit for the Tigers this season will be the schedule. Tahlequah will play six home games — Fort Gibson, Rogers (Ark.), Claremore, Pryor, Central, Collinsville — at Northeastern State’s Doc Wadley Stadium.
“That helps a lot,” Carlile said. “Last year, we only had like four or something like that.”
After a long run of losing seasons, it begs a question: is there pressure building with each passing year to finally record a winning season?
“I think each year you flip the script,” Gilbert said. “But you know, pressure is good. Pressure makes everybody be on their toes, and I enjoy it. That’s part of the job.
“I don’t think we, as a staff or football team, feel any pressure, but we want to put pressure on ourselves, because we know that will allow us to perform at the best of our ability.”
Adding to that point on a broader scope, Wright said: “As a whole, we’re just trying to turn the entire Tahlequah football program around. Coach Gilbert has done a great job...and he’s not just teaching us football; he’s teaching us how to be great men. I think that’s one of the most important parts.”
As for Tahlequah’s biggest key in 2013, it’s tuning out all the outside chatter, Carlile said.
“Everyone has to do their job,” Carlile said, “and just ignoring people outside of games.”
District 5A-4 players to watch
* Baron Hope (Claremore, LB, 6-2, 210, Jr.) - With Jordan Cunningham now at Northeastern State, Hope takes on the task of an always-stout Zebra defense. Hope is more than qualified after racking up easily 140 tackles as a sophomore in 2012.
* T.J. Johnson (Collinsville, WR, 6-1, 190, Sr.) - Perhaps one of the better pass-catchers in all of Class 5A, not just District 5A-3. As quarterback Zane McElroy’s favorite target in 2012, Johnson had close to 1,000 yards receiving.
* Tre’von Cherry (East Central, QB, 6-0, 185, Jr.) - Stanvon Taylor stole the spotlight for the Cardinals in 2012, but Cherry still did his part, passing for 25 touchdowns and nearly 2,300 yards. Don’t be surprised if his rushing numbers among the best of any quarterback in 5A this year.
* D’Angelo Brewer (Central, QB, 5-9, 195, Sr.) - The fun-sized signal caller for the Braves might now overwhelm opponents with his arm — only 300 yards passing in 2012 — but threat he posses with his legs will open up avenues in the air this year. Brewer was only 21 rushing yards away from the 1,000-yard mark in 2012, and he’ll likely be at that threshold again this season — only with more passing yards, too.
* Brandon Conrad (Tahlequah, RB, 6-0, 170, Sr.) - Playing second fiddle to Mason McMillan in 2012, Conrad possesses the ability to make any defense fearful once he touches the ball. If the Tigers can get him the ball in open space and provide just enough blocks, Conrad could easily be a 700-yard rusher and 500-yard receiver.
District 5A-4 power rankings
1. Claremore - Sure the Zebras have to find replacements for running back Jordan Cunningham and quarterback Matt Whatley, but the defensive unit should be solid enough to make a run at the district title. Plus, Claremore’s schedule is favorable with East Central and Coweta both traveling to Claremore to play at Lantow Field. Advantage, Zebras.
2. East Central - It was the Stanvon Taylor Show for the Cardinals in 2012, but former standout is now at Oklahoma trying to earn a roster spot as a freshman. Running back William Goree is also gone. That means the focus shifts to quarterback Tre’Von Cherry. The versatile playmaker can do virtually anything, but he’ll have to stay healthy while carrying the Cardinals on his back.
3. Coweta - Losing Hayden Holmes, Jakeem Johnson and Hunter Raspberry hurts. All three were integral parts of the Tigers making the playoffs last season. It’s now up to quarterback Ryan Fitzsimmons, wide receiver Caleb Wheeler and linebacker Tristan Butcher to be the next formidable trio that keeps Coweta’s playoffs hopes afloat.
4. Collinsville - The Cardinals have wide receiver T.J. Johnson, which is good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt all year. He’s also a standout cornerback, so the field is pretty much cut in half for opposing offenses. However, a revamped front seven on defense, quarterback Zane McElroy out with an injury and question marks at running back make Collinsville vulnerable of missing the playoffs.
5. Tahlequah - Five through seven in this district is a toss-up. However, Tahlequah gets Pryor and Central at home, so advantage, Tigers. It’s no secret that Tahlequah has gone more than a decade without any kind of sustained success, but the there are talented pieces in place for the Tigers in 2013. A clean bill of health and winning games at home could go a long way to Tahlequah making a push for a postseason spot.
6. Central - The Braves only won two games last season, and that was with D’Angelo Brewer at quarterback and in the secondary. So anything more than a smattering of victories would be a stretch.
7. Pryor - The loss of Carson Smallwood, who seemed to rush for at least 100 yards every game last season, is going to hurt. The Tigers’ offense hinged largely on what Smallwood did last year, and in 2013 it’ll be up to quarterback Brennon Barth to fill the void.
8. Grove - The Ridgerunners return nine starters on defense. However, it’s a defense that allowed close to 40 points a game last season. More maturity might be a good thing, but without any kind of improvement, it could be another long year on the shores of Grand Lake.