The Stillwater High football team is preparing for one more game this season in an odd week, because of Thanksgiving.
But the game isn’t this week.
Stillwater will face Bixby on Dec. 6 for the Class 6A-II state championship for the second-straight year. It’s the matchup that was anticipated since even before the season began.
Before that contest – or even the final days of preparation – Stillwater will enjoy a Thanksgiving Day practice in front of family members before taking a couple days off the gridiron.
“Before the 6A split, practicing on Thanksgiving was a really big deal,” SHS coach Tucker Barnard said. “It was a rite of passage that signaled to your team that you really accomplished something, because there are so few teams that get the opportunity to do it. We want to try and make this a tradition. If we could do it every year, that would be good stuff.”
After defeating Choctaw in the state semifinals Friday night, Stillwater players took off Sunday but returned on Monday and Tuesday for normal practices. Without school Wednesday, the Pioneers practiced in the morning – the final full practice during their bye week.
For the second year in a row, Stillwater will have a light practice Thursday morning where it just runs through a few things. Making the day special will be having family members at the practice after a light breakfast for the players.
“A lot of people will have family in town, so aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas will come, too,” Barnard said. “They’ve probably never seen practice, but we’ll have a short practice – maybe 30 or 40 minutes out there. We’ll just run some plays.”
Unlike most football practices, there won’t be as much yelling by coaches. Barnard said the meaning of the day is more important than trying to be hard-nosed during a short practice eight days before the next game.
“We probably won’t be doing a whole lot of yelling on that day,” Barnard joked. “I joke about it, but the nature of what we’re going to do that day is just a chance to be close to family. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family and celebrate the things we are thankful for.
“At the risk of being really corny, as a football coach, we’re thankful for this opportunity that we have to play in a state championship game. Every time that we come together as a team in a big huddle, it’s very rare that we don’t break out on ‘family.’ Thanksgiving is a family time, so I think it’s appropriate that we bring all of the kids’ families in and bring out football family together and have a little get together.”
When they have been practicing this week, the Pioneers have been preparing for a team they’re quite familiar with having been eliminated by Bixby the past two years in the playoffs. It will mark the second-straight game they’ve played a familiar team.
Stillwater had to beat Choctaw a second time this year to reach the state title game. Now, it has to beat a Bixby team that convincingly won last year’s championship.
“It’s almost like a run-through at our game plan,” Barnard said of this week’s practice approach. “We met over the weekend and talked about the things we like. We’ve played Bixby the last couple of years and they’ve beat us. You look back at those, we traded video with Bixby and we’ll look at that, and then you start formulating a game plan.
“This is a week for us to kind of run through that. We’ll get to the end of the week and decide what we liked and what we didn’t like and what we ought to tweak. Then we’ll come in next week and do it all over again – so reformulate a game plan after having this practice week and having time to think about what we’re doing.”
It’s a two-week chess match between opposing coaching staffs leading up to next week’s title game, which will be played at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Wantland Stadium in Edmond. For Barnard, this is a fun part of his job.
“This is the fun part of coaching,” Barnard said. “We all played ball and we loved playing the game, but we really liked was that challenge and competition phase of it. This is kind our chance to feel that again – that same competitive edge and anxiety about being prepared.”
Another benefit of the extra weeks of practice won’t show up until next fall. Much like college teams that earn a bowl bid, extra practices are beneficial for players who will return next year.
“We now get four extra weeks of practice,” Barnard said. “Our players are getting almost half an extra season compared to someone who didn’t make the playoffs. It’s really big for a program to do this and keep practicing. The way I look at it is our sophomores are getting four more weeks of preparation, so they’ll be better next year when they come in as juniors than what they would if we didn’t make the playoffs.”