Nine months of frustration and anxiety are less than 48 hours from ending for the Stillwater High football team.
Since Dec. 1, dozens of returning Pioneers have been waiting to get back on the gridiron. They lost the 2018 Class 6A-II state title to powerhouse Bixby, earning Stillwater’s first state trophy in more than 40 years.
But, that bitter taste of defeat has lingered with a large corps of players who were on the field at Owasso High’s stadium that contest, which ended after midnight. No rain is in the forecast for Friday’s season opener, so weather shouldn’t delay the game, as it did nine months ago.
However, Stillwater will be on the road once again. SHS will kick off its 2019 campaign at 7 p.m. Friday at Edmond Memorial.
“It’s been so long, I’m ready to put the pads on and smack Memorial,” SHS senior defensive back Kobe Holley said. “… That Bixby game was devastating. We came up short. Now, we have to go do it again.”
Edmond Memorial is set to open a new stadium Friday night. Although there is a rumor the game could be moved to Stillwater, because the Bulldogs’ new stadium isn’t complete, Barnard basically put that to rest.
“I’ve heard that rumor, but there isn’t anything to that,” Barnard said. “That was a conversation we had way back last spring, but I talked to their AD last week, so I think all of that is just rumor.”
In a recent article in the Oklahoman, Memorial officials said the game will be played in Edmond, although the stadium won’t be finished. It will be complete enough to host the Pioneers.
Memorial enters the game hoping to rebound from last year’s 2-8 record. The Bulldogs will be led offensively by quarterback Trace Evans, who completed 8 of 13 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s 61-18 Pioneers’ win at Stillwater.
“They’ve got good athletes and several guys that are really good players, but they’re playing them both ways,” Barnard said. “We’ll see if that continues into the game. They did that last year in the scrimmage, but when we got to the game, they really played more on one side of the ball. That remains to be seen.
“They’ve got guys at every level that can play ball. The quarterback is returning and that’s always a pus for anybody.”
The Pioneers are led offensively by the three-headed monster of senior quarterback Gunnar Gundy, junior running back Qwontrel Walker and senior wide receiver Anthony Bland. They accounted for the majority of the Pioneers’ offense a year ago.
In last year’s game against Memorial, Walker carried the ball 25 times for 274 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Gundy completed 13 of 16 passes for 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Bland caught six passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in his Pioneer debut.
All three are expected to have huge seasons once again.
One of the question marks coming into the season for Stillwater was the players protecting its offensive skill guys. The Pioneers graduated three seniors who are playing college football from the offensive line.
Yet, Barnard admits this year’s line and their coach don’t view the group as a question mark. He’s been happy with the line’s production through two scrimmages leading up to Friday.
“I’ve been pleased with what they’ve done so far,” Barnard said. “They’re coming along. They’re young, so they’re going to make some mistakes. The vast majority of the time we need them to know their assignment and play hard. If you miss a block or get beat here or there, that’s going to happen, but you have to know your assignment and give great effort. I think they’ll do that.”
Stillwater has also had success defensively in its two scrimmages. Last week at Norman, the Pioneers intercepted the Tigers, who are ranked No. 5 in Class 6A-I, four times.
SHS defensive coaches were thrilled following the scrimmage with Norman. Barnard can’t wait to see his defense in action Friday against a Memorial team that averaged only 10.5 points per game a year ago.
“I really thought they stole the show last week,” Barnard said. “I thought they should have been the talk of the town the way they played. Norman is a very good football team and I think they’re going to win a lot of football games. … They made it tough on us and it was a great challenge, but our guys really stood up and played well.”
Stillwater has beaten Memorial the past three years. SHS won the 2016 and 2017 contests by a score of 24-7 before last year’s 61-18 drubbing of the Bulldogs. The Pioneers scored touchdowns on their first eight drives of the 2018 game.
Now, they’re preparing for this year’s contest as they begin embarking on a fairly normal routine that includes a game on Friday night most weeks.
“It’s good to get into the swing of things,” Barnard said. “Even this week, with the holiday weekend, has kind of messed things up a little bit the way we normally do it. What we did (Monday) we would normally do on a Sunday. Then, Monday is kind of an off day for us with JV playing. You can feel the routine settling in and next week will be even a little bit better.
“We’ve been waiting a long time to go play football. It’s here now. This is what we’ve been training for, and we’re ready to take our shot.”