It’s become the norm.
Tahlequah, Coweta and the playoffs are linked together.
So has the number of meetings over recent years.
The rivals will hook up once again Friday in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Doc Wadley Stadium in round one of the Class 5A playoffs.
In all, it will be the fifth meeting in the last three years. Tahlequah holds a 3-1 edge during that span and defeated the Tigers, 9-7, in week two this season at Coweta.
“We’re familiar with each other,” Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said on Tuesday. “It’s the third consecutive year we’ve met in the first round of the playoffs. Those previous games don’t have any bearing on this one, obviously, but the familiarity is there.
“When we see Coweta now, I think they’re a much-improved football team. They’re very dangerous and what I mean by that is they’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays. When you’re sitting there and you’re watching them as a coach, you’re just thinking about the abilities that they have to make plays on both sides of the ball.”
Coweta ended Tahlequah’s season last year in the opening round of the playoffs at Doc Wadley Stadium, and Tahlequah finished Coweta’s season the year before in Coweta.
Sixth-ranked Tahlequah, coming off its first loss of the season last week in a 21-14 setback to Claremore at Doc Wadley Stadium, won its first district championship since 1991 after defeating Tulsa Memorial in week nine and closed its regular season at 9-1, while Coweta (5-5 overall) finished fourth in District 5A-3 with a 4-3 mark.
How do the Tigers bounce back from their only mishap?
“I think the guys have handled it really well,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got a veteran football team and they understand that life doesn’t always work out the way you have it planned. What’s more important is how you react to it. [Monday] we had a really good practice. It was a good Monday. Our guys are ready, they’re excited about the opportunity. They know the challenge in front of them. Obviously Coweta’s got their attention, and there’s not a bad football team in the playoffs, everybody’s good. I think we’re in a good spot mentally and we’ll be ready to go.”
Also, will senior quarterback Tate Christian, who was listed as questionable as of Tuesday, be available after sustaining a shoulder injury against Claremore?
“We’re still carving some things out, but he’ll suit up Friday night,” Gilbert said. “It’s questionable, we’re still working on a few things. We just don’t know where he’ll be come Friday.”
If Christian can’t go, quarterback duties will go to senior Simeon Armstrong, who is normally one of Tahlequah’s primary receivers. Armstrong has just two pass attempts on the season, but has rushed for 124 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
“Simeon wasn’t prepared [last week] because I didn’t prepare him,” Gilbert said. “It had nothing to do with Simeon. It was a tough spot and we hadn’t worked him very much at quarterback the previous two to three weeks. Tate was getting all the snaps. Simeon had a good start to the week on Sunday at it’s carried over to [Monday]. He’s been in big games and I’ll think he’ll play well if given the opportunity. We feel good about where we’re at.”
Christian is completing 56.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,157 yards with 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
The Tigers will lean more on star senior running back Dae Dae Leathers, the school’s career rushing leader. Leathers has rushed for 1,484 yards (7.9 yards per carry) with 19 TDs.
They also have big-play threats in the versatile Kobey Baker and receiver Tristan King. Baker has 25 receptions for 299 yards, and 55 yards on the ground with four total scores. King leads the Tigers with 401 receiving yards and eight TDs.
“We can’t lose sight of who we’ve got to get the ball to and that’s 20, 16 and 10, more times than not,” said Gilbert, referring to Leathers, King and Baker. “Other guys will get the ball, but those three guys make plays for us, and Simeon has the ability to make plays too.”
Leathers finished with 138 yards against Coweta in the first matchup. Armstrong had the lone touchdown on a 9-yard run.
The Tahlequah defense, led by senior defensive end Blake Corn and senior linebacker Dylan Parish, held its own in the first meeting. The Tigers allowed just 110 total yards, forced six punts, collected 3.5 quarterback sacks and 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“That first game, defensively we played really well,” Gilbert said. “They kept us in the game and kept making play after play. We put them in a lot of third-and-long situations and to get in third-and-long situations you’ve got to win first down. That night, defensively we did that and we also won the field position battle.”
Through 10 games, Parish has registered a team-high 93 total tackles and has eight tackles for losses, and Corn has 52 tackles, 14 for losses, eight sacks and six quarterback hurries. Linebacker Carson Ferguson has 10 tackles for losses, linebacker Angel Quezada is second in tackles with 81, and defensive back Qua’shon Leathers has 73 stops and a team-best three interceptions.
“Our defense will have to be sharp again,” Gilbert said. “We’ll have to play at a high level. They’ve got a big challenge in front of them and they know that. Our coaching staff does a great job of getting those guys prepared.”
Coweta at a glance: Coweta is led offensively by sophomore quarterback Gage Hamm, receiver Mason Ford, running back Piper Pennington, receiver Blake Lair and tight end Gunnar McCollough.
The Tigers, who have won two of their last three games, including a 41-22 win over Glenpool in their regular season finale, have averaged better than 44 points over the last three weeks.
“[Ford] has grown up a lot as a freshman and he’s got more comfortable,” Gilbert said. “He’s mature and he’s become a much better football player. You can see his explosive ability as a player. Their quarterback has obviously gotten better as the season has gone on. They’ve made some adjustments up front and they’re better up front.”
Hamm is completing 69 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,881 yards with 17 touchdowns. Ford leads in both rushing (357) and receiving yards (563) and has 10 total touchdowns. McCollough has 494 yards on 27 catches with a score, and Lair has 25 grabs for 307 yards and four TDs.
The Coweta defense has forced 20 turnovers, 13 of those on interceptions. Ford and Zaydin Skinner have three interceptions each, and senior defensive end Jonathan Fadeyev leads with 74 tackles and 15 tackles for losses.
“Things that stand out whenever I think about Coweta is how physical they always are, how hard they always play, how well-coached they always are,” Gilbert said. “Those are three things you’re always going to get.”
“Coweta has been in a lot of big games and close games,” Gilbert added. “They’ve been on the right side of some and on the wrong side of some. There’s no question we’ve got our work cut out for us and we’ve got to play a really clean football game this Friday.”
5A playoff picture: Other opening round games on Friday include: Woodward at Noble, Bishop Kelley at Collinsville, Pryor at Tulsa Edison, Ardmore at Bishop McGuinness, Duncan at Carl Albert, Claremore at McAlester, and Piedmont at El Reno.
If Tahlequah defeats Coweta, the Tigers would host the Piedmont/El Reno winner next week.
The Class 5A State Championship game will be played at Wantland Stadium in Edmond at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7.