It’s become a familiar scenario for Tahlequah and Coweta.
The two teams will open the Class 5A playoffs going head to head against one another for the fourth time in the last five years when they meet Friday at 7 p.m. in Coweta.
“It’s unique,” Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said of the recent history between the two schools. “It’s interesting how it’s unfolded over all these years. We continue to find each other as a first round opponent.”
Coweta has won the last two playoff meetings, including a 42-21 win in 2019. Tahlequah has won the last two regular season meetings, the most recent coming in a 9-7 win in 2019.
Tahlequah, who finished its regular season at 7-3 overall and 5-2 in District 5A-4, had a loss for the first time since the month of September last week against Collinsville at Doc Wadley Stadium.
Coweta (9-1, 6-1) enters having won three consecutive games since suffering its only loss to McAlester, 33-2, during week seven.
Gilbert, who has guided the Tigers to a school record eight consecutive playoff appearances, isn’t concerned with his team’s confidence after the 55-13 loss to Collinsville.
“In an outcome like that, I think you would be naive maybe to think that your confidence wasn’t shaken a little bit. But that’s one thing about this group is that they’ve been resilient all year,” Gilbert said. “Even from those early setbacks…our guys have always responded in the way that we obviously needed to. It’s no different this week. We ran into a really good Collinsville team.
“When it comes to this week, it’s a new opportunity, it’s a new week. That’s really got to be our mindset, and we’re in a place where not everybody is. Half of the teams in 5A aren’t playing anymore. We need to be grateful that we’ve been given this opportunity that we’ve earned.”
The Tigers, who are averaging 350 total yards of offense, are led offensively by dual threat quarterback Tyler Joice. Joice has completed 60 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,295 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. On the ground, the senior has 472 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior running back Malik McMurtrey, who missed the Collinsville game due to injury, leads Tahlequah with 832 rushing yards and nine TDs. Sophomore running back Darryn Spahr has added 320 yards and four touchdowns, and junior running back Josh Munoz has 215 yards with three scores.
Sophomore receivers Race Stopp and Jacob Morrison have been Joice’s top targets. Stopp leads the team in receptions (34), yards (391) and touchdowns (five), while Morrison has 25 catches for 322 yards with three TDs. Junior Cale Matlock has 18 grabs for 236 yards and three scores.
“Offensively, we need to create some momentum and put points on the board early,” Gilbert said. “That gives you belief, encouragement and excitement.”
The Tahlequah defense is led by a veteran defensive line with seniors Hunter Clay, Jonathan Davis and Aidan Glynn, linebackers Mason Watkins and Jayden Moore, and defensive backs Parker Lane and Dylan Leep. The Tigers allowed 373 total yards, including 204 yards through the air, on 38 snaps against Collinsville.
“Defensively, we’ve just got to limit their big plays because they’re a big-play offense,” Gilbert said of Coweta. “They have that ability to be very explosive.”
Senior quarterback Gage Hamm, junior receiver Mason Ford and junior running back Will Mason lead the Coweta offense.
Hamm is completing 59.3 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,673 yards with 23 touchdowns and just one interception. Hamm also has 370 yards rushing with four TDs. Ford has 721 receiving yards on 50 receptions with 11 touchdowns, and Mason has 725 rushing yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, with 10 touchdowns.
Senior linebacker Michael Fletcher leads Coweta’s defense with 65 total tackles, while junior linebacker Nate Long follows with 64. Defensive end Carson Flanary has a team-high 14 tackles for losses, seven quarterback sacks and seven hurries. Defensive back Cadence Denton has four interceptions. The Tigers have forced 20 turnovers.
“They’re an explosive football team and so well coached,” Gilbert said. “They’re aggressive across the board on both sides of the ball.”