Pawhuska football should look forward to some changes Friday night when the 2013 high school football season opens at Ormand Beach Memorial Stadium.
A newly-installed public-address system and other improvements to the stadium facilities will provide window dressing for the gridiron showdown between the PHS Huskies and their Class 2A opponents, the Tonkawa Buccaneers.
Pawhuska and Tonkawa both return quality remnants from squads that staggered into the 2012 state playoffs, where they were humanely eliminated by high-flying first round foes. After choking a 23-4 triumph out of the Huskies in last year’s opener at Tonkawa, the Bucs went on to a 5-5 regular season while PHS wrapped up a 4-6 campaign.
The Huskies will attempt to start the year with a bang under their new head coach, Bob Craig. A veteran of more than three decades in area football wars, Craig was hired just two days before the end of last school year. Nonetheless, he managed to put the local squad through a solid off-season workout program.
With 18 freshmen and sophomores on his 31-player roster, the new coach is trying to blend the youth with his experience.
"The great thing about young players is you know games are going to be exciting, because you never quite know what will happen next," Craig said. "What the other coaches and I have been trying to do is bring things together and get them to play at a more even keel."
Following a lackluster performance in last week’s final pre-season scrimmage at Pawnee, the Huskies will seek to re-establish the run-pass offensive mix that had success the previous week in a home scrimmage with Cleveland.
"We had a bunch of our guys get sick a couple days after the Cleveland scrimmage and it threw off our practices and left us a little shorthanded at Pawnee," said Craig. "But, it also caused us to look at guys in some other positions and that led to a couple of discoveries that should help us in the future."
One of those affected by the illness was senior center Kendall Oller, who has been a bright spot on the Huskie offensive line, Craig said. Although Oller attempted to play through his misery, the coaches relieved him early in the practice at Pawnee.
"Now, we’ve found that we have three quality deep snappers — one senior, one junior (Marshal Tolson) and a sophomore (Matthew Taft)," said Craig. "That’s a luxury that few teams will have."
The coach said the Huskies will rely on the athleticism of senior quarterback Zalin Edwards to run an option-style offense using runners that include seniors Taylor Priest and Connor McNeil. Throwing also will come into play, Craig said, as Pawhuska tries to take advantage of coverage mismatches created by standout senior receiver Bryce Wilson (a determined 190-pounder) and 6-4 junior Tolson.
PHS defensive coordinator Mark Frye is making the most of some key components as he rebuilds a dependable Huskie unit. Solidifying the middle of the local front wall is 230-pound junior Tyler Reece, an emerging star on both Pawhuska lines.
Tonkawa coach Mike Kirtley has been forced to re-tool, as well, but the Bucs still are only four years removed from back-to-back state championship seasons. Last year, they started fast behind a talented senior QB but faded down the stretch and were beaten in the first round by the Oklahoma Christian Saints, who went on to take the Class 2A title.
Former Buc receiver Ben Hook is expected to be moving behind center due to the graduation of standout QB Trent Ellis. Joining him in the backfield will be speedy Manny Reyes and north-south runner Brandon Purdy.
Top lineman Bryan Jordan, a junior, will go both ways for Tonkawa — as will Hook, Reyes and Purdy. A week after playing Pawhuska, the Buccaneers will by hosting Oklahoma Christian, which is considered a reasonable choice to repeat as champion.
The Adair Warriors and Nowata Ironmen continue to be the leading contenders in Oklahoma District 2A-8, which also includes Pawhuska, as well as the Caney Valley Trojans, Chelsea Dragons, Oklahoma Union Cougars and Chouteau Wildcats.
Adair is coming off its second straight one-loss season (12-1), with its only defeat in 2011 coming via a first-round upset by the Huskies. The Warriors, who have not lost a regular season contest since 2010, replace graduated all-district quarterback Brady Bradbury with his freshman younger brother, B.J.
Nowata returns the bulk of a 9-3 team that posted a quick turnaround following an 0-10 campaign. The Ironmen are led by: the district’s defensive player of the year, 260-pound nose guard Skyler Wood; junior QB Wyatt Steigerwald, a third-year starter; and senior sprinter Nate Moore.
Favorites in the other seven Class 2A subdivisions include the Commerce Tigers, the District 8 champs who defeated the Huskies in last year’s opening round of the playoffs. The 2012 state runnersup, the Davis Wolves, are the choice in District 4, while the Stroud Tigers and Vian Wolverines are favored in 2A districts 5 and 6, respectively.
The Alva Goldbugs and Hennessey Eagles top the picks to win Class 2A’s District 1 — which includes Tonkawa and several other Pawhuska rivals (Perry, Newkirk and Pawnee). Favored in 2A District 2 are the Saints of Oklahoma Christian and the Millwood Falcons. The main hopefuls in District 3 are the Washington Warriors and Lindsay Leopards.
District re-alignment remains a distinct possibility for next year, although recently-released enrollment figures indicate no major shakeups appear likely.