SALLISAW — Brad Gilbert was alone with his thoughts. Perched atop a Styrofoam cooler in the visiting locker room at Perry F. Lattimore Stadium, Gilbert sat stoically as his players filed out, one by one to find a seat on Tahlequah's bus.
One player patted Gilbert on the shoulder, resulting in a half-hearted smile from Tahlequah's head football coach.
Gilbert just didn't have it in him.
For the third straight week, Gilbert and his Tigers were dealt a loss. This time it was a 45-28 setback against Sallisaw in front of 1,050 fans in Tahlequah's final nondistrict tune-up.
"We thought we had a good plan, and the kids were ready," an emotionally drained Gilbert said. "It's just tough to lose football games. That's the bottomline."
The players exiting Tahlequah's makeshift locker room were also distraught. The Tigers amassed 444 yards of total offense and still couldn't carve out a victory against the Black Diamonds.
"They take the losses personal," Gilbert said of his players. "I'm proud of them for that. They continue to fight to the very end, and they're showing a lot of character. It hurts them, and that's the way it should be."
Looking to win for the first time in Sallisaw since 1993, Tahlequah appeared poised to cut into the Black Diamonds' 38-28 advantage with a little less than nine minutes left in the final quarter. However, on fourth-and-6 at Sallisaw's 16-yard line, Tahlequah's Brandon Conrad was limited to a three-yard gain, turning the ball over on downs.
"We had an opportunity to punch it in," Gilbert said, "and we just fell short on the fourth-and-6."
Sallisaw head coach Craig Benson said the stop on Tahlequah's option right was made possible by a 6-foot-2, 237-pound junior defensive lineman.
"Hunter Reed made a heck of a stop right there," Benson said.
Instead of Tahlequah narrowing the gap in the final period, Sallisaw took the ball back and churned out a 13-play, 86-yard drive that burned 6 minutes, 51 seconds off the clock.
"Just like (senior running back) Jadon Davenport said, 'that's Black Diamond football right there,'" Benson said. "That's how we play ball right here. He's exactly right. It was about managing the clock and getting first downs and not doing anything silly. Just had to grind it out and we did."
The Black Diamonds' final scoring drive was a stark contrast to what transpired in the second and third quarters.
After Sallisaw (2-1) wrapped up the first quarter with a 10-0 lead, both teams started trading nonstop scoring punches.
Tahlequah (0-3) cashed in on two scoring runs by quarterback David Dick. His first one, a 15-yarder with 8:10 left in the second quarter, pulled Tahlequah to within 10-7, and Dick's subsequent 24-yard run with 6:08 until halftime put the Tigers in front 14-10.
Answering quickly, the Black Diamonds reclaimed their lead on Triston Brown's 1-yard touchdown run — his second of three touchdowns in the game. Sallisaw boasted a 17-10 edge with 4:35 left in the half.
Twenty-three seconds later, Tahlequah's Brandon Conrad ran 75 yards for a touchdown, and the Tigers grabbed their second lead of the game, 21-17.
Then, with 13 second left in the second quarter, Brown scored on another 1-yard run, and Sallisaw would lead 24-21 at the break.
The Black Diamonds were able to create a sizable advantage midway through the third quarter on two plays of 50 yards. The first was Chase Richey's 50-yard touchdown reception from Quint Scoufos, and the second was Cale Wilson's 50-yard scoring run.
Sallisaw, at that point, was up 38-21.
But, Dick pulled Tahlequah closer on his 65-yard run with 3:39 left in the third quarter. The Tigers, despite inching to within 38-28, would never score again.
Dick paced Tahlequah's offense with 156 yards on 22 carries. He also passed for 110 yards on nine of 16 passing. Conrad, on only nine rushes, picked up 138 yards.
"We put guys in opportunities to make plays," Gilbert said of his club's offense, which managed only 163 yards of offense in Week 2 against Rogers (Ark.)
"We just have to continue each week to try and exploit those weaknesses defensively. Every defense presets a weakness somewhere, and you have to exploit it with players that can make plays."
Sallisaw was able to follow that formula, finishing with 419 yards of total offense. Wilson tallied 191 yards on 22 carries, while Scoufos passed for 133 yards on eight of 15 attempts.
It certainly was not the type of clash that Benson expected.
"This game did not go as I thought it would go," he said. "...We thought it was going to be more of a lower-scoring ball game. When we went up 10-0, I was thinking, 'if this thing ends like this, I will not be surprised.' But, man, it turned into a shootout."
Nothing more than a high-scoring, painful affair for Tahlequah.
"I wish I could give them a win," Gilbert said of his team. "But nothing in life worth having comes easy. You have to go out and earn it and do what's right all the time. It's just disheartening; it really is. I want these kids to win football games."