Tate Christian

Tahlequah senior quarterback Tate Christian threw for 1,434 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2018. The Tigers open their 2019 season Friday at home against Fort Gibson.

Tahlequah, Fort Gibson and season openers have been linked together for nearly a decade.

The two schools will meet again on Friday for the 10th straight year at Doc Wadley Stadium in Tahlequah.

The Tigers, coming off one of the best seasons in program history after going 9-2 in 2018, have won the previous two meetings, including a 33-23 victory last year in Fort Gibson. Tahlequah has won three of the last four matchups.

"It's always exciting to open the season," said Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert, who is entering his seventh season. "It's exciting because it's week one, but it's also exciting because we've been playing Fort Gibson for 10 years now."

Tahlequah has a loadful of playmakers returning on offense.

Senior quarterback Tate Christian, who tied a single-game school record with five touchdown passes against Coweta in his first year as a starter, is back to run the offense. Christian threw for 1,434 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The explosive Dae Dae Leathers returns for his final season at running back. Leathers broke the single-season rushing mark last year with 1,586 yards, averaged 7.5 yards per carrry and added 19 TDs on the ground.

The Tigers also return a bevy of production at the receiver positions with Jaxon Jones, Kobey Baker, Simeon Armstrong and Bradley Pruitt, along with others such as Qua'shon Leathers and Tristian King expected to play big roles. Baker is the top returning leader in catches (28) and yards (445), and Jones had 19 receptions for 368 yards and a team-high five TDs.

Up front, Tahlequah returns senior tackle Blake Corn and senior guard Hayden Napier, but must fill in at the other three spots. Candidates are Joe Hendrix, who had three starts last season, Tristan Walters, Justin Hitchcock, Brandon Jackson, Kooper McAlvain, Lance Holcomb and Montana Wood.

Corn and senior Dylan Parish will spearhead the front seven on defense, but will be surrounded by newcomers. Parish led the team with 97 tackles and had eight tackles for losses in 2018, while Corn collected 53 tackles, 11 for losses, and six sacks. Angel Quezada, Shaw Thornton, Carson Ferguson and King will be in the mix at the other linebacker spots, and Napier, Hitchcock, Jackson and Wood will see time on the line.

The Tigers are most experienced defensively in the secondary with Qua'shon Leathers, Baker, Armstrong, Trae Patrick, Dae Dae Leathers and Pruitt. Leathers had two interceptions a year ago, and Baker was among team leaders with 71 tackles.

Fort Gibson went 4-7 in 2018 under head coach Greg Whiteley. The Tigers return standouts in tight end Carson Ladd and running back Tavien Woodworth. Woodworth rushed for 1,668 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2018, and Ladd averaged 15 yards per catch.

Defensively, Fort Gibson returns eight starters, including linebacker Karson Austin, who led the team with 84 tackles.

"Fort Gibson is always a well-coached football team," Gilbert said. "They're a very physical football team and they don't beat themselves. Any opponent like that makes it difficult. It's a great challenge and we're excited about it. Hopefully we'll have a great crowd. I think everybody around here is ready for some football."

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