Brad Gilbert needed spring football this year in more ways than one.
But it won’t happen.
Gilbert’s ninth year as head football coach at Tahlequah is being cut short as the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to school and all associated activities for the remainder of the academic year.
“This situation is a lot deeper and bigger than high school or any athletic realm of things. It does affect everybody,” said Gilbert on Thursday. “It’s different. Everybody’s in the same boat, so nobody’s getting a head start or getting out in front of anybody else. There’s going to be challenges, we know that.”
It’s seven days of practice and two days of team camp in May that Gilbert, his coaching staff and his players could’ve used as the Tigers will be young and inexperienced in 2020.
But the hardest part for Gilbert is not being able to be involved on a normal day-to-to basis with his players.
“That’s why we as coaches do what we do,” he said. “It’s not for our own glory, it’s the relationships you build with these young men. It’s the best part of the job, watching them grow and mature on a daily basis as we see them every single day.”
Gilbert and his coaching staff are finding ways to be innovative.
“We’ve got to be creative and think outside the box as coaches and not allow this moment to be a negative but be a positive in some way, shape or form,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been able to stay in contact with them through text messaging. I know some of our coaches have been reaching out to them. I’ve reached out to every one of our players, keeping them in the loop with things that they can be doing, things that we may have to do in the near future when it comes to just communication, just keeping that connection alive and doing what we can.”
The spring was going to be a time of bonding and a springboard into both the summer months and fall camp.
“We go from an experienced football team to an inexperienced team,” said Gilbert, who’s guided the Tigers to 46 wins and five playoff appearances over the last five seasons. “This is an important time, there’s no question about that.”
Gilbert liked what he saw during offseason workouts prior to the stoppage.
“The couple of months that we had, I thought we made a lot of strides in the weightroom, and more importantly, from a leadership aspect,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of seniors that really took ownership of their responsibilities and did what’s expected of them in going forward.”
A large senior class, a majority of which played huge roles, will have to be replaced. But it’s a group that left a foundation.
Missing will be Oklahoma Coaches Association All-State selection and District 5A-4 Player of the Year Blake Corn at defensive end, the school’s all-time leading rusher and 5A-4 Offensive Player of the Year Dae Dae Leathers at running back, 5A-4 Co-Quarterback of the Year Tate Christian, and 5A-4 Linebacker of the Year Dylan Parish. Also gone are 5A-4 All-District players Hayden Napier (offensive line) and Tristan King (receiver).
Other key losses that were 5A-4 All-District honorable mention selections include receivers Jaxon Jones and Simeon Armstrong, offensive linemen Kooper McAlvain and Joe Hendrix, defensive linemen Montana Wood and Travis Davis, and kicker Trae Patrick.
It’s a group that took Tahlequah to its first district championship since 1991.
Gilbert was just getting started with the track and field season. Tahlequah was supposed to open at a meet in Glenpool on Friday, March 13, but the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association postponed all high school sporting events the day before, prior to the start of the basketball state tournaments.
“It’s a hard lesson to learn, but one thing that can be learned is you can’t take anything for granted in life,” Gilbert said. “We just assumed that everything would continue as it always has and in a 24-hour window it’s taken away from us. What’s important is we keep moving forward and stay in an upright positive perspective. I think that’s very important and a lesson to be learned during this time.”