By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
When the Stillwater High School boys basketball team takes to the court for the opening round of the Bixby Tournament, it’s going to be about more than just defending their title.
It’s also about getting some revenge.
The Pioneers (2-0) spent the entire summer thinking about last year’s 48-46 playoff loss to Bixby. Now the Pioneers will get their chance to repay the favor when they take on Spartans in the first round of the tournament Thursday at 8:30 in Bixby.
“We ususally either play them in the first round or second round,” Stillwater assistant coach Kyle Love said. “We got them in the second round last year in the semifinals. It was a tough, close game each time we played them last year. There’s always kind of an unspoken rivalry between us and Bixby, especially the last two years with them being the team that ended our season. There’s that little extra any time we do play Bixby and getting matched up with them in the first round just gives us that much more to look forward to in that first round game.”
As much hurt as the Spartans caused last season, the pendulum swings both ways. Last year the Spartans watched as Stillwater walked off the floor with a trophy they were the odds-on favorite to win.
But the title of defending champs comes with a price, Love said.
“In a sense, there’s a target on our back for this tournament considering we’ve had some pretty good success the last couple of years in it,” Love said. “I know that the team from Springdale (Ark.) would love to see us again after we got them in the championship last year. ... I know our guys are ready and we’re just ready to get to it. Especially after having the last couple months of practice, these guys are always ready for games.”
The road to defending the title won’t be easy. The experience of Dylan Murrell, Tanner Killam and Tyler Holcomb was a big reason Stillwater came away with the championship, but none of those players will be walking through the door anytime soon.
Instead, the Pioneers will rely on new faces like Brett Budke and Jared Dickey to carry the load.
“It would mean a lot to repeat, especially considering we have a lot of new faces,” Love said. “We have a lot of young guys that didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year, but they know how tough it was last year to get to that point.”
There are some players with experience in the tournament, like Rico Thompson, Carson Teel and Caleb Watkins. Love said that having that experience should benefit Stillwater.
“It kind of depends on how well we play,” Love said. “It’s three games in three nights. That plays a big factor into it. For those guys that aren’t used to playing three games in three nights, it’s going to be a little bit different for them. But for those guys like Rico, Carson and Caleb, who all were huge factors for us last year, they’re going to have to carry some of the younger guys this year. We have no doubt in our mind that they’re capable of doing that.”
The Pioneers may come into the tournament young and untested but that doesn’t mean they are already writing off their chances and defending the title.
“We saw that the field is pretty good, especially on the top half of the bracket where we are,” Love said. “Our expectations are to go back and defend our title from last year. The year before Stillwater was the runner-up and last year we won it, so we’ve had some pretty good success at the tournament. We always have the expectations to do well. Coming off a win last year, we’re going back expecting to repeat.
“We always go into every tournament with the expectations of winning the tournament and moving on to the next one. We set a goal last year of wanting to win every tournament we were in, meaning playoffs all the way through and we have that expectation and goals to do it again this year. Of course we came up a little short last year, but it all starts with this one. You can’t win the next one until you win this one, so I guess we’re hoping that this tournament gets us on the right foot to begin the season.”