Rusty Morgan knew some of the challenges he was facing when he took over his alma mater’s football program in 2018.
Those included replacing the coach he worked under and the football program moving up one classification. Those challenges resulted in two tough years for the Cushing High football coach.
However, his hard work paid off three years after he was hired. Morgan coached the Tigers to the Class 4A state semifinals after a pair of seasons in which they finished with a losing record.
Morgan’s success resulted in him being named the Stillwater News Press All-Area Football Coach of the Year. His Tigers finished the season 9-4, losing to the eventual 4A state champion in Wagoner.
“Going through the holidays and having a little time to look back on it, you have to look at everything that contributed to this run we had,” Morgan said. “It was special.”
It wasn’t always special for the Cushing alumnus. He took over the program following a 6-5 season in which the Tigers lost in the first round of the playoffs. They made the state semifinals in 2016 and state title game two years earlier. Morgan was taking over the Tigers’ program after Barrett Shupe capped a career with 59-24 record since he took over in 2011.
Moving back to Cushing and being hired by Shupe was something Morgan feels quite blessed about. It’s a place he’s happy to call home.
“Obviously, Cushing is a community that means a lot to me,” Morgan said. “The football program, of course, means a lot to me. I’m very fortunate to have administrators around that the Cushing community means as much to them as it does to me. I just can’t say enough about how blessed me and my family are to be here doing what we love, and we have a lot of good people on board with us.”
In addition to taking over for his former boss, Morgan also dealt with Cushing moving up from Class 3A to 4A. It wasn’t easy, but playing tough teams wasn’t something new for the program as its former district opponents were some of the best in the state year in and year out.
“There were a lot of challenges,” Morgan said. “When we were in 3A, we still had Heritage Hall and Kingfisher, and we’ve always played tough schools regardless of class. Moving up and playing bigger places was definitely a challenge.”
The 2018 and 2019 seasons were difficult for Morgan and the Tigers. They finished the regular season 4-6 each year, but won enough district games to earn the No. 4 seed and a playoff berth.
They lost both playoff games, but those seasons set the tone for what was about to come this year. Morgan said advancing to the postseason was important for the growth of the program.
“The last two years, there was still one game in particular each year that the guys knew they had to win to punch their ticket into the playoffs,” Morgan said. “They got that done both years, and I think some of the guys that were heavy contributors this year weren’t necessarily on those team, but they were part of the program, and they saw the guys getting it done when it mattered.”
This year’s team kicked off the 2020 season with three nondistrict victories over teams who later qualified for the playoffs. Two of those three won at least one game in the playoffs, too.
The Tigers split their six district games and entered the postseason with a 6-3 record. It was good enough to earn a home playoff game in the first round.
Cushing’s playoff run began the same as the 2014 squad that went to the state finale did – a win over Bethany. Then came road wins over Weatherford and Hilldale, which combined for just one loss before falling to Cushing.
“We were actually preparing for Elk City up until basically Sunday evening before the playoffs, and then found out we were playing Bethany,” Morgan said. “After that win – a pretty dominant win in the first round at home – I think it added to that confidence these guys were building throughout the year. When we went on the road and beat Weatherford, right then and there, I thought our guys said keep counting us as the underdog and we’ll got beat anybody in the state. It was the mindset of our senior leaders.”
The Tigers’ magical run came to an end the first weekend of December in the semifinals. They fell to Wagoner, which won the state championship the next weekend.
“We knew going in that Wagoner was an excellent football team and No. 1 all year for a reason,” Morgan said. “There’s no easy way to end the season, unless you’re the one winning the last game.”
Morgan was quite proud of the Tigers’ season. He said the team’s success can be attributed to many things, but particularly the leadership of the 2021 senior class. Another key reason is the staff working under Morgan, he said.
“I think it was a handful of things,” Morgan said. “Of course, going to 4A a couple years ago, the schedule has been tougher every year we’ve taken the field. This year, it seemed like the John Marshall game kind of flipped the switch in our guys’ minds. We had a pretty dominant game that evening, and then it carried over the next week into Ada.
“We had excellent senior leadership, which we’ve talked about several times, but they brought those sophomores and juniors along with them throughout the season. I’ve never seen a team gain confidence every time it took the field like this team did this year. That’s a testament to everyone on the team and all of the coaches. It was just a great ending to a great year.”
Although the 2020 season was quite a successful one, Morgan is hungry to get back to the state semifinals and go even further in the years to come. He’d like to bring the school its first football state title since 1961.
Morgan believes he has the players and staff to do so. He will return a solid junior class and a sophomore class that is filled with talented skill players. For now, it’s back to work in the weight room for those not involved in a winter sport.
“We have a lot of guys who aren’t out for basketball or wrestling who are in the weight room getting stronger and better at what they do,” Morgan said. “We do have a lot of two- and three-sport kids in all grades. It’s a very competitive group. … We have a group right now that’s working harder in the weight room than I’ve ever seen. I do think the success they saw toward the end of this year and the hard work they put in, they’re starting to see how that pays off.”