Tahlequah Daily Press

High School Sports

August 30, 2013

FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Cougars aiming for another playoff run

bjohnson@tahlequahdailypress.com

Stop for a second and ponder over the traditional powerhouses in Class 3A.

Blanchard, no doubt.

Seminole, of course.

Kingfisher, sure.

Cascia Hall, yep — well, until the move to Class 4A.

Metro Christian, absolutely.

Heritage Hall, sure, why not?

There’s a good chance Keys’ name never arose. Don’t worry, Keys head coach Gary Willis said, that’s pretty common.

“I think it’s been a new program,” Willis said of his club. “It doesn’t seem new to us now, going into our 12th year at the high school level. There are schools that have been around for 100 years.”

While some of those century-old schools continue to make appearances in the playoffs, Keys is becoming a regular alongside those traditional powers. The Cougars have stamped their tickets to the postseason the past three seasons, twice making it to the second round.

One thing Willis’ teams have done regularly is exceed expectations.

“We have never finished worse than we’ve been predicted,” said Willis, whose team finished the 2012 season in the second of the playoffs with a loss to Metro Christian.

“We’ve always come in under that. If we’re ranked No. 25, we’re always in the teens. There have even been times when we’ve been around 12 or 10.”

While the perception of the Cougars isn’t about to change anytime soon, the players and coaches are OK with that. The unheralded role is something that is relished now in Park Hill.

“I think so,” Keys center Trey Horn said when asked if the Cougars play the underdog role.

“I think (other teams) shouldn’t count us out, though.”

Willis said he uses the overshadowed card as a motivator for his team.

“You feed your boys on that,” Willis said. “You just have to go out and beat everybody that you’re supposed to beat.”

In 2013, it seems as though Keys is replacing starters all over the field. Names like Cody Cole, Trevor Eubanks, Blake Maxey, JJ Ozturk and Tyler Blankenship are gone.

The roster this season will be young. But the talent is still there, says linebacker Dillon Clark.

“We’re kind of flying below the radar,” he said, “but I honestly think we have potential to be as good as we were last year — if not better.”

To do that, Keys will rely on sophomore running back Datoka Matlock.

“At tailback, (fans) will like what they see with Dakota Matlock,” Willis said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound ball carrier. “...He is a sophomore, but he will hit you right square in the mouth. He is a very physical running back with good speed.”

Plowing the road for Matlock won’t be same kind of offensive line that Keys has possessed for the past couple of seasons. Previous clubs had plenty of girth up front, averaging anywhere from 270 to 280 pounds. This year’s team will hope to use quickness to its advantage.

“Our better average weight is closer to 200 — 210, maybe,” Willis said. “We’ve been a zone-blocking team, where those guys get up on people. This group is more of a man, down-blocking scheme, and they’ll go get people off the ball. It’ll look a different for us.”

Taking Eubanks’ place at quarterback will be Garett Willis and Dillon Stratton.

With very few seniors suiting up for Keys this season, Willis said plenty will be around for years to come — with some possessing star potential.

“I think there are four or five young guys that could be,” Willis said. “Obviously, Dakota Matlock is one of those guys right now. But it’s going to be neat over the next three years how they all develop, and it’ll be neat for the community to watch and see how steps up.”

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