Facing the giants

Hallie Hart/Stillwater News Press The Stillwater High football team is preparing to face Bixby for the second time this year. This time, the matchup means more because the Pioneers and Spartans are competing for a spot in the state title game. 

Tucker Barnard and the Stillwater High football team don’t have to play a guessing game while scouting their state semifinal opponent.

After Stillwater and Bixby have faced off several times in recent years, including once this season, Class 6A-II’s powerhouse program presents few mysteries for the Pioneers. Barnard acknowledged that the Spartans might add a few twists to their game, but the rivals are familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

As the Pioneers have learned, Bixby doesn’t have many of the latter.

“We both know probably as much about each other as you possibly could,” Barnard said. “...Ultimately, they’re going to be doing the same things that they’ve been doing, and ultimately, so are we. We’ll see who does them better.”

Since fall camp, Stillwater has anticipated meeting the Spartans in the postseason. Now, Bixby is the colossus looming between the Pioneers and a berth into the championship game.

Stillwater and Bixby will go head to head in a state semifinal matchup at 7 p.m. Friday in Langston. The second-seeded Pioneers are considered the home team at Langston University’s W.E. Anderson Stadium, only 22 miles from Stillwater.

In other ways, top-seeded Bixby holds the advantage.

The perennially successful Spartans have steamrolled every opponent this season, even defeating Class 6A-I heavyweight Jenks 23-15 on the road. Bixby played its second-closest matchup during Week Three against Stillwater (9-2), but the Pioneers fell into a deep deficit after keeping up with the Spartans early. With four touchdowns, standout senior Braylin Presley steered Bixby to a 42-14 victory, handing Stillwater its first loss of the season.

The young Pioneers have grown considerably since then. While the Spartans (11-0) reigned over Class 6A-II District 2, Stillwater steadily rose through the ranks of District 1, finishing the regular season in second place behind Del City.

“It’s pretty exciting for us because we’re just a completely different team than we were Week Three,” senior linebacker Chance Clements said. “We’ve just been building each week, getting better, and it’s just very exciting to be able to get a rematch against them. It’s never promised to be able to get a rematch against a team, so it’s awesome to get to play them again.”

The rivalry between Stillwater and Bixby has escalated in the playoffs. In 2018 and 2019, the Spartans defeated Stillwater in the title game, fueling the Pioneers’ fire for revenge. The last time Stillwater beat Bixby was 2011, when the Pioneers won 31-23 during Barnard’s first season as coach.

“They’re the best team in Oklahoma,” Barnard said. “They have been for several years, regardless of classification. I don’t see any evidence that there’s anybody else out there better than them, so we’re gonna get our shot at them.”

Bixby is entering the semifinal matchup striving for its 48th straight win, which would tie the state mark in 11-man football. Wagoner holds the current record, claiming 48 consecutive victories from 2014-17, but the Spartans could break it with a state title.

The Pioneers have the power to take the narrative in a different direction. This time, they aren’t letting Bixby’s skill level distract them from focusing on team goals. Clements said he thought the Pioneers tried to play “hero ball” during Week Three, and their approach has evolved since then.

Senior linebacker Gabe Brown agreed.

“I think we’re all playing for each other a lot more,” Brown said. “The first game, I think we were all a little bit hesitant at first, and maybe worried about Braylin. He’s such a dynamic, good player, and I think we were all worried about just going and making a play on him.”

Although the Spartans are loaded with talent, Stillwater also has stars on both sides of the ball.

Sophomore running back Holden Thompson has rushed for 1,082 yards and 15 touchdowns, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark during the Pioneers’ first-round playoff victory against Booker T. Washington. Junior quarterback Gage Gundy, also a first-year starter, has thrown for 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns.

On defense, junior Garhett Reese and Clements lead Stillwater with 61 and 60 tackles, respectively, while sophomore Trey Tuck has a team-high four interceptions.

The Pioneers have proven their skills, but to knock down the giant that is Bixby, they also need to play a clean game.

“We’ve had too many times where we’ve missed a blocking assignment or we run a wrong route or we have a silly penalty that costs us,” Barnard said. “We’re not expecting to play a perfect game. … but this game, for us to win it, there’s going to have to be some things go right for us. We’re gonna to have to play well, not make needless mistakes, because when you do, (Bixby is) good enough, they always capitalize.”

The winner of Friday’s game will encounter either Sand Springs or Deer Creek in the state title matchup. Although escaping Bixby has been an impossible task for every team this season, the Pioneers can rely on familiarity with their foe to give them a chance at an upset.

“I think it’s just really important to me that the guys know that there is a plan,” Barnard said. “We’re not just throwing something against the wall here. We have a plan to try to win, so in terms of focus, that’s something that’s really important, that they stay in the moment.”

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