By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A year ago, Stillwater High School football coach Tucker Barnard’s mind was filled with “what ifs” as his team prepared to open the season at McAlester. What if Braxton Noble wasn’t the right choice for quarterback? What if the defense can’t stop the Buffaloes’ powerful running attack?
These days, Barnard is no longer worrying about the “what ifs” on the team. Noble has solidified himself as a big-time play maker and the defense looks to be the strength of the team this season.
And as the Pioneers prepare to host McAlester in the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday at Pioneer Stadium, only a scattering of moths, not butterflies fill the night time air around the stadium.
“We’re definitely more comfortable (as opposed to last season),” Barnard said. “I think we’ve got a good idea of what we have at the quarterback position. We’ve got a good one. He’s a smart kid that works really hard and can make all the throws.
“I’ve never been one to get real nervous. I’ve always felt like if you put in the work and put in the time, there’s not really anything to be nervous about.”
The Pioneers have certainly put in plenty of time, with spring practices and various summer team camps leading up to the fall practices. After a 3-7 season last year, make no mistake that this year’s squad has been anxiously awaiting opening night for the past 10 months.
“I think we’ve been ready since we’ve strapped up in the spring,” Noble said. “Week 1 is always a big deal, no matter what age you are. We’re ready to go get it.”
Getting a win won’t be easy for the Pioneers, which dropped the last six games in 2012. Even though Stillwater trounced McAlester 42-18 last season in McAlester, Barnard said topping the Buffaloes this season won’t be a cakewalk.
McAlester is ranked No. 3 in the first Class 5A poll, led by quarterback Dalton Wood and receiver Caden Pratt.
“We know they’ve got some really good football players,” Barnard said. “They have several of their best starters from last year back. Their quarterback is a really good football player — a big kid, whose a physical runner and an accurate passer.
They’re go-to guy is Caden Pratt, who plays receiver for them and will probably even play some quarterback. He’ll carry the ball from the backfield and he’ll catch it — he just does a lot of things.”
It’s that kind of scary talent that could easily turn Friday night’s game into a shootout, where the last team to score will win.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Barnard said. “There’s a lot for us to defend. Offensively, we think we have a chance to be as good as anybody but we need to get things going quickly.”
Quick has definitely been the optimum word of choice around the Stillwater locker room this week. Already moving at a pretty good clip, Stillwater has picked up its offensive pace this week in practice in hopes of wearing down some of the players like Pratt, who play offense and defense.
“A lot of their guys go both way, so we’re just going to have to go really fast,” Noble said. “I guess you could say that’s the key to the game. We’re just going to go out and just execute.”
Keeping a blistering pace may be the key to Stillwater’s success, but the real area of concern will be how the Pioneer offensive and defensive lines hold up at such a high pace.
“We tell them all the time that the way they play is really going to determine so much in a football game,” Barnard said. “When they play well and do their job and have big nights, it gets a lot easier for the rest of us.
“I tend to feel like they’re all won (in the trenches). Even in the games where somebody throws it 40 or 50 times, if those linemen are able to make themselves a factor then everything else kind of comes off of that.”
There may not be as many “what ifs” when it comes to this season’s opener, especially since both teams have hooked up in 7-on-7 camps and even at last week’s scrimmage at Norman, which Stillwater’s offense did have some success against the Buffaloes, but there are still a few unanswered questions lingering as the season begins. And while those answers may not come the first week, Barnard is optimistic he’ll be closer to a solution after Friday’s game.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Barnard said. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for. We’ve been working hard since last December with this kind of end date in mind. It’s been so much preparation and so much work that we’ve put in. Hopefully we’ve invested so much that we don’t give up easily.”