By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Coaches rarely talk about distractions being a good thing for a football team. Usually those distractions lead to an inevitable and sometimes surpassing loss that can turn a team’s season upside down.
But Stillwater coach Tucker Barnard is hoping those distractions — homecoming, the first district game, playing a historic rival — will take the Pioneers’ eyes off another possible distraction: The fact that Stillwater is in the midst of a nine-game losing streak and hasn’t won in a calendar year.
“Staying focused is not a problem for us,” Barnard said. “We’ve got a tough task in front of us. There’s no time for let down and no time for feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to go to work. It’s a new season. District play starts and now it counts. I understand that it always counts, but our playoff life is on the line starting this week.”
Over the course of that year, Stillwater (0-3) has suffered some heartbreaking losses — three of them this season. But it’s in those tough losses where Barnard sees hope as the Pioneers take the field against Ponca City (0-3) for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Pioneer Stadium.
“We’re definitely improving,” Stillwater junior linebacker Cameron Mayberry said. “We’ve lost a lot of games by stupid mistakes here and there, and not being mentally strong enough. We’re definitely a good team. We just have to prove it after coming up short three times in a row.”
The good news is that no matter how much fans, coaches and players want the first three games to count, the reality is that early losses don’t mean a team is out of the playoffs. The bad news? That’s not going to be the case against Ponca City.
“I’ve said ever since I’ve been here that these first three games are where you learn and point out your mistakes and you find things to work on,” Barnard said. “We found a lot of things to work on, but I also feel like we are improving in those things.”
Two things Barnard really has been hammering this week in practice? Running the ball and tackling — two things that Stillwater will need to do against a Ponca City team that has scored just 20 points and given up 145 points.
“I think that we’ve put ourselves in a tough situation,” Barnard said. “We’re 0-3 and nobody likes that. I’m sure Ponca City doesn’t like that. The coaches want to win, the kids want to win. We’ve got to put a game plan together that gives us that opportunity, then we have to execute that game plan.
“We think that we’ve improved every week. We know that different phases of the game have struggled at different times. We need to pull all those things together and put them together in one game. Now we’ve got seven district games to do that and put ourselves in a position to go to the playoffs.”
It’s still way too early to tell whether Friday’s game will have playoff implications or not, but Barnard is convinced a win could be the turning point he and his staff have been looking for all season.
“I feel like when we get things lined out our whole district can be in trouble,” Barnard said. “We think we can do some things. We think we got a group of players and a group of coaches that really can do something special. We just have to make our own luck. We have to create some situations where we look lucky and seem lucky. That happens through a lot of preparation and a lot of effort.”
Even with all the distractions that come with homecoming and a district-opener surrounding the team this week, Mayberry said the team is treating this like a season-opener more than the fourth game of the season.
“This game against Ponca City is kind of an opportunity to turn things around and start over,” Mayberry said. “Being the first game of district, we definitely want to come out and hit them hard.”