Although many people expect Stillwater High to reach its third-straight Class 6A-II state championship football game in two weeks, but SHS coach Tucker Barnard knows nothing is promised during this strange year.

A handful of teams have had to cancel their playoff games because of COVID-19 cases on their team or contact tracing forced too many players to be quarantined. Others have been forced to stop playing because of COVID numbers within their county or community.

Those concerns have taken over the minds of coaches across the state. Thus, Barnard has tried to take as many steps possible to ensure his team can remain in the playoffs, if it keeps winning. The No. 2-ranked Pioneers are projected to square off with Bixby for the third-consecutive year, but for now, it’s all about safety and staying healthy.

“A lot of social distancing last week,” Barnard said. “Even at practice we didn’t truly get after it and have normal practices. We just tried to work individual type things and see how we could get better as individuals. This week is kind of back to normal. We’ve still taken a little less of a contact approach, even more than we normally do. We’ve backed off some to be as safe as we can. The fine line is trying to do enough, but not too much.”

Stillwater Public Schools went back to virtual learning this week as Payne County reentered the “Red” level on the COVID alert scale. This has its own challenges, but the Pioneers dealt with them early in the season, so readjusting hasn’t been too difficult this week.

They had a very light week last week during their first-round bye – since Putnam City West opted out of the playoffs – but began ramping up practice this week to a certain extent. The Pioneers (8-0) are preparing to host Sand Springs (7-4) at 7 p.m. Friday at Pioneer Stadium for the 6A-II state quarterfinals.

Sand Springs beat Deer Creek, 34-29, last week in the first round of the playoffs. Stillwater beat Deer Creek, 62-16, in late September. Sand Springs is riding a three-game winning streak heading into Friday, and one key reason is junior quarterback Ty Pennington – younger brother of Oklahoma State softball player Sidney Pennington.

Ty Pennington has completed 117 of 230 passes (50.9 percent) for 1,923 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games. He also leads the Sandites with 501 yards on 148 carries and 11 touchdowns. Fellow junior Blake Jones has also rushed the ball 87 times for 411 yards and six touchdowns.

“They have a good quarterback and everything happens through him,” Barnard said. “I know that’s pretty cliché for the quarterback position, but he’s probably the biggest cog in their run game wheel, as well. They run lots of zone reads and power reads where he has the option to keep it. … It’s really good stuff and stuff that can be confusing to the linebackers.

“To the guy sitting in the stands, it just looks like quarterback run again, but the details of it – there is a lot going on. They may run four or five quarterback runs that when sitting in the stands might all look the same, but the blocking is different and the design is different. All of that causes us to react a little bit differently.”

Barnard said the Sandites will use their run and passing games about equal, but it’s Pennington’s ability to run that poses the biggest threat.

“It’s really about 50-50 on run/pass game based on the video that we have,” Barnard said. “I think the best part of their offense is the quarterback run game. They’ve got good receivers and he can throw it, too. He throws it well to keep you honest.”

The Pioneers’ coach also said Sand Springs has a tough front seven on its defense. He said they’re big and strong, like the Sand Springs teams he’s seen in the past.

Barnard also said he feels confident about his team’s ability to run the ball, especially with senior Qwontrel Walker in the backfield.

Walker, who has rushed for more than 7,000 yards in his career, was held to a season-low 105 yards on 26 carries in the Pioneers’ last game.

The four-year starting running back took ownership of his performance, and wants to redeem himself for his teammates.

“I think he was a little frustrated after the game,” Barnard said. “He was frustrated with himself, and it’s the mark of a good football player. He messaged us probably an hour or so after the game and he was already at home watching the video, and he was messaging us how he didn’t play right. He was hitting his cuts and following his run game rules. It’s the mark of a mature football player when instead of going to hang out with the guys, he’s home watching video already and he’s not blaming other people. He was being self reflective.”

Seating for Friday’s game has been limited to the families of the athletes and coaches. Tickets were sold to the families. General admission tickets won’t be sold.

Follow Jimmy Gillispie on Twitter @jgillispie_stw for Stillwater High athletics updates and live updates from Friday’s game.

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