PEGGS — Just off of Highway 82 on the western edge of Cherokee County, an old sign with a blue panther points the way to a small school surrounded by trees and sports facilities.
The tiny campus might not look like much, but Peggs has proven to be a training ground for some of northeast Oklahoma's finest high school athletes.
“Peggs has a lot of influence on Mayes County athletics,” Peggs coach Carl Cowan said. “They get to go join up with the bigger schools and it takes their athletes and the Peggs kids and you combine them together, it gives (coaches) a lot more to choose from.”
Peggs is a K-8 school and is home to around 200 students. Students from Peggs and other ORES (Organization of Rural Elementary Schools) programs are in a unique position upon graduation. They are allowed to choose where they attend high school without losing any eligibility due to transfer.
Students from Peggs land all over the map. Many attend one of the high schools in Cherokee County (Tahlequah, Sequoyah, Hulbert or Keys), but many also head north to one of the five Mayes County schools.
The eighth grade graduating class of 2014 included 23 students, who will each take their talents somewhere new this fall.
Due in no small part to Peggs alumni, Mayes County experienced one of its most impressive sports years in over a decade during the 2013-14 season.
The Locust Grove football team finished the school’s first undefeated regular season behind sophomore quarterback Mason Fine.
Pryor’s young sophomore standout Spencer Henson helped lead the Tigers to their second-consecutive baseball state tournament appearance, and will start playing his third sport — football — for the Tigers in the fall as a junior.
Fine and Henson graduated from Peggs in 2012 before choosing their current schools. Twenty-one other current Mayes County athletes were once Panthers as well.
The 2010 Peggs class, which graduated high school in May, left its mark long after leaving. The class featured three All-State Team honorees in their respective sports, five future college athletes, and a state champion.
Audrey Ballou and Nick Kingfisher chose Sequoyah High School in the fall of 2010 and both plan to compete at the collegiate level next season. Ballou will play basketball at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami next winter and also received All-State Team honors as a volleyball player. Kingfisher claimed the 2014 3A state title in the high jump and lettered in three sports as a senior.
Salina’s Mark Cowan and Locust Grove’s Lynsey Conner and Daniel Henson will also play their respective sport at the collegiate level. Cowan will be a member of the Sterling (Kan.) College basketball team and Daniel Henson may also join him there on a golf scholarship. Conner will be the class’ lone Division-I athlete as a softball player at Coppin State University in Baltimore. Pirates Taylor Halpain and Bailey Holman also received All-State honors in basketball.
Carl Cowan, father of Mark Cowan, has led the way for Panther athletics the past six years as the head coach of four different sports. Carl coaches football, boys and girls basketball, and track and field. He also assists in softball and with the younger teams.
Carl also helped create the eight-man football program five years ago to replace the defunct baseball program.
Students at Peggs may begin playing sports competitively for their school as third graders. Every two grades competes together: third- and fourth-graders comprise a team, as do fifth- and sixth-graders and seventh- and eighth-graders.
The small environment of Peggs Schools has posed many more advantages for the coaches and athletes.
“Small group, more attention,” Fine, now a three-sport star for Locust Grove, said. “I know we were successful at sports because everybody knew each other personally and got along with each other as well. Our team chemistry was through the roof, basically in any sport.”
“You’re not trying to coach 40 kids at once, so you can kind of put your energy into more,” Carl Cowan said. “Fifteen is a lot easier than 30 or 40 out for a sport. Plus, kids like Spencer (Henson) and Mason (Fine), they’re such great athletes that they got to play up. As young kids they were getting to play against seventh- and eighth-graders and they were in the fifth or sixth grade. That really helps their development later on.”
Peggs is a member of ORES, which is comprised of 109 schools throughout Oklahoma, including Mayes' County's own Osage, Spavinaw and Wickliffe schools.
ORES also started a state playoff system in 2001. It is similar to the OSSAA system and is divided into three divisions. Football, basketball, softball, and track and field each have their own state championships.
The Panthers claimed their first and only state title in 2011 in boys basketball. The 2011 state championship team featured Fine and Spencer Henson on the roster, along with other future Mayes County standouts. Pryor’s Robert Ross, Locust Grove’s Zach Robinson and Zack Bailey and Chouteau’s Trenton Pierce were also members of the title squad.
Fine, Henson, Ross, and Robinson all found themselves in the starting lineup of their high school teams as sophomores and Pierce started as a junior after sitting out his sophomore year after transferring from Locust Grove. Peggs also appeared in the state finals in 2008 and 2012. The Panthers were also state runners-up in softball in 2011.
“The level of competition we have here every game is really high level, and so that really helps prepare them,” Carl Cowan said. “The playoffs prepare them, playing in the state tournament games with big crowds and big noises. It gets them ready for the high school stuff. I think that’s a lot of it, why they’re going on to being successful.”
In 2011, Locust Grove High School put together one of the greatest athletic years in school history. Head Coach Ronnie Maple led the Pirates basketball team to its first state tournament appearance in program history. Maple’s roster included five Peggs alumni. Justin Bailey, Cale Fine, and Robert Shelly all received time on the starting five. Shelly also received all-state honors the following year as a senior.
After the basketball season ended, Shelley and Bailey continued to help Locust Grove make history on the baseball diamond. Bailey pitched a complete game shutout against Woodward in the Class 4A state final to seal the program’s first and only state title. Shelley also threw a complete game in the semifinals to help the Pirates sneak into the championship game. Fellow Panther Cody Jenkins also played third base for the state champions.
Bailey, Shelley and Jenkins all played baseball for Peggs before the program was replaced with football.
Peggs School has made an impression on Mayes County, and the future is still bright for the Panthers. The third and fourth grade girls basketball team won every tournament it competed in last season. Audrey Ballou’s sister, Hannah, is in the sixth grade and Carl says she may have more potential than her sister had. Adrianne Fine, Mason Fine’s younger sister, is also a Peggs standout as a fourth-grader.
“Our future looks great. We have a lot of young great athletes coming up, so we’re just going to keep churning them out,” Carl Cowan said.