Tahlequah High School’s Greg Jackson, left, tries to escape a Sandite defender on Friday night at Doc Wadley Stadium. The Tigers lost to Sand Springs, 35-28.

The dictionary defines victory as "a success achieved against any opponent, opposition or difficulty." The Tahlequah High School football team (1-4, 0-2 6A-4) may not have achieved victory against the opponent, but it did show it could handle difficulty.

The Tigers were on the wrong end of a 35-28 score against Sand Springs (3-2, 1-1) Friday night on Gable Field at Doc Wadley Stadium, but the Tigers overcame a 28-7 deficit late in the game to eventually forge a 28-all tie before a 49-yard Znick Ferrell interception return gave the Sandites the winning touchdown with 39.7 seconds remaining in the game.

Tears flowed freely in the Tahlequah locker room after the heartbreaking homecoming night loss to their district 6A-4 foes from Sand Springs, but when the Tigers look back on this night, years from now, they will remember taking part in a comeback for the record books. They will remember a rally that thrilled the crowd and turned a placid home bleacher section into a roaring sea of humanity.

The Tigers looked great on their first possession of the contest, driving 81 yards in seven minutes on 15 plays.

Michael Crawford jump started the Tahlequah offense on the first play from scrimmage with a run of 24 yards. Passes of 14 and 22 yards from senior Jake Thornton to Chucky Bryant helped move the ball to the Sandite three yard line.

The Sand Springs defense tightened up and pushed the Tigers back to the seven, but that wasn't any problem for Thornton and Bryant, who connected again for a 7-yard touchdown pass to put Tahlequah in front 7-0 following Taylor Tannehill's extra-point.

The Sandites wasted little time striking back. Sophomore quarterback Johnny Deaton came up with a 30-yard scramble to put the ball on the Tigers end of the field at the 21.

On the next play, running back Josh Reed raced down the home sideline for a touchdown. The extra point by Keegan Cornelius tied the game with 1:52 remaining in the first period.

An interception gave the visitors their next scoring chance. Deaton found Shane Devers for a 27-yard gain to the Tahlequah 28 and then hit Reed on back to back passes of three and seven yards respectively.

Ferrell took care of the rest of the yardage to the end zone with a seven yard rumble and a 12-yard burst up the middle to make the score 14-7 at the 8:13 mark of the second.

The Sandite defense held the Tigers on their next possession and Deaton and company went back to work. A 30-yard catch by Devers and a 14-yard grab by Tim Youngblood set up Sand Springs at the Tahlequah 1. Ferrell would go over for his second touchdown of the game to boost the visitors lead to 21-7 with 5:06 left before intermission.

The Tigers recorded an impressive drive with Greg Jackson hauling in passes of 16 and 13 yards.

Thornton dropped back to pass and connected with a leaping Ronald Mitchell for what would have been a 30-yard gain, but offsetting penalties negated the play and the Tigers would not be able to get anymore points on the board before halftime.

Following the second-half kickoff, Sand Springs marched 79 yards in 12 plays to take a commanding 28-7 lead. Devers was the key to the scoring drive, catching four passes for 31 yards. Reed scored the touchdown, going up the middle for 14 yards at the 6:39 mark of the third.

The Tigers may have been down, but they were hardly out, as Thornton and his receiving corps would prove on their next possession.

Jackson caught two passes for 16 and 19 yards, with the latter having more yards tacked on to the end of the play due to a facemask penalty.

With the ball at the 31, it was time for senior Ronald Mitchell to score the first touchdown of his career. Mitchell made a nifty catch and raced into the end zone for a 31-yard score. Tannehill's extra point made the score 28-14.

Sand Springs began the final 12 minutes of play with a nice 28-14 lead and were ready to add to that tally.

A late hit penalty on Deaton gave the Sandites a first down and when Ferrell found running room for a 35-yard gain down to the Tiger 1.

Sand Springs prepared to tack on a little insurance. Deaton snuck forward on first down but THS rose to the occasion, blasting the center backwards and holding Deaton for no gain.

The Sandite quarterback tried again but this time the Tahlequah defensive penetration was even stronger.

The ball was knocked loose and bounded into the waiting hands of Mitchell.

The speedster took the fumble at the one and sprinted, like the Metro Lakes champion runner that he is, down the Tahlequah sidelines

Mitchell crossed the goal line to set a school record with a 99-yard fumble recovery. Tannehill made his third extra point in as many tries and the score stood at 28-21 in favor of the Sandites with 8:56 left in regulation.

The Tigers had grabbed the momentum, if not the lead, and the Gable Field crowd was roaring their approval. Tahlequah stuffed Sand Springs on its next possession and forced the Sandites to punt.

The snap was low and bobbled by the punter. The Tiger special teams converged on the punter, forcing him to scramble for daylight. A Tiger was able to get his paw on the ball, forcing a fumble that Tahlequah fell on at the Sand Springs 35.

Thornton connected with Bryant for a 21-yard gain with Chucky holding on to the ball even as he was being hit by two defenders. Michael Crawford carried twice for 12 yards total and capped off the drive with a sweep around the left side for a 2-yard touchdown. Tannehill didn't show any signs of pressure as he drilled the extra point through the uprights to tie the contest at 28 with 6:01 to play.

The Tiger defense had come to life in the second half and once again forced a punt. Tahlequah's offense got off to a good start with Jackson catching a 12-yard pass and Bryant picking up nine yards on the ground. A tipped ball led to an interception that ended the drive and set up the Sandites at the Tiger 38.

Sand Springs gained nine yards on the first three plays and facing fourth-and-inches at the Tahlequah 29, the visitors elected to roll the dice and go for the first down with 39.7 seconds left in regulation. That proved to be a mistake as Deaton never was able to get a handle on the ball. The Tigers picked up their third fumble recovery of the period.

The Tigers went over the middle on first down, with Thornton looking for Bryant. The Sandites got a good bounce with the ball being tipped twice by two different players and finally into the hands of Ferrell at the Tahlequah 49. The big junior rumbled down the home sideline with Thornton making the final effort to bring him down, but to no avail.

The Tigers had battled back to tie the game, but fate had intervened and Sand Springs now led 35-28 thanks to the triple tipped interception and return.

With 26.7 seconds left, the Tigers made a valiant try to get the ball back into the Sandite end zone.

Jackson caught four straight passes from Thornton to move the ball from the 20 to the 46, but the senior, according to the officials, was unable to get out of bounds.

Chucky Bryant hauled in Thornton's fifth straight completion to move the ball into Sand Springs territory, but time was not on the Tigers side. As the Tigers tried to get back into position for one last fling at the end zone, the clock ran down with the visitors on top 35-28.

The scoreboard told that the Sandites had won, but the Tahlequah had battled back with confidence and determination, never letting adversity get the best of them, never letting anyone tell them that they weren't supposed to keep trying when the odds were against them or their backs were against the wall.

The Tigers grew on Friday night as a team and as young men. In the end, it's just a high school football game, not life and death. The effort to succeed that Tahlequah showed is all that the proud fans asked of their Tigers and the youngsters in the orange helmets gave exactly that.

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