Stroud has won the District 2A-5 title five consecutive years, but Okemah is the preseason pick among district coaches to dethrone the Tigers this season.
Coach Joe Turner is entering his fourth season at Okemah and has restored pride in Panther football again. When Turner took over in 2009, Okemah had not had a winning season in 14 years.
The Panthers were 6-4 in Turner's first season and last year recorded their first playoff victory in 20 years before losing in the second round to Lincoln Christian.
“They won a lot of football games (in Okemah) in the '80s and the first part of the '90s, than it got pretty bad there for awhile,” Turner said. “Our kids take pride in restoring that tradition.”
Okemah has posted three consecutive winning seasons and appeared poised to break Stroud's stranglehold on the district crown.
The Panthers have six starters back on offense and seven on defense, plus other experienced players returning.
Senior Michael Davis will be a four-year starter at defensive end. Returning cornerback/receiver Dean Lee is the state 300-meter hurdle champion and a versatile player.
“He is an athlete,” Turner said. “We use him in different spots, some at receiver and some in the backfield.”
Other starters returning include linebacker/fullback Justin Strunk, sophomore quarterback Andrew Danta, linebacker/receiver Cedric Carter, linemen Derek Garcia and Comanche Beaver and linebackers Randall Locust and Jake Jackson.
“Our overall team speed will be pretty good,” Turner said.
STROUD MUST REPLACE STAR POWER
Stroud finished 12-1 last season, losing to Jones, 29-28, in the quarterfinals of the Class 2A playoffs.
“That one has been tough to deal with,” Stroud coach Chris Elerick said of the Tigers' last-minute loss to Jones.
Elerick believed the 2011 Tigers were good enough to win a state title.
“We lost a lot of good kids (from last year) but we are bringing back a lot of good kids,” Elerick said.
Tight end/defensive end Blake Gordon, linebacker Tanner Jolley, offensive lineman Ryan Mathews, quarterback Alex Hinds and leading receiver Ryan McElvaney are back to try for a sixth straight district championship for Stroud.
“Going into this year the seniors have been on teams that have played 11 playoff games and have a career record of 8-3,” Elerick said.
Stroud lost much of its offense with the graduation of running backs Dakota Biswell and Levi Killman. Biswell rushed for more than 5,000 yards and 92 touchdowns in his career while Killman compiled more than 3,000 yards and more than 40 scores.
“They were really good for a long time back there,” Elerick said. “We lost some star power.”
The Tigers, however, still plan to punish opponents with the running game.
“We are going to do what we do,” Elerick said. “We have got kids that have worked hard and ready to step into those roles and now is their time. It will probably have a different look and a different feel, but it's still gong to be the same ole' Stroud football.”
MEEKER MUST GROW UP IN A HURRY
Meeker will be young this season with no starters returning on offense and just three on defense: linebacker Jacob Wood and safeties Leven Hendley and Nick Cagle.
There will be a lot of starting positions up for grabs when two-a-day practices begin, Meeker head coach Mike Hedge said.
Meeker does have some depth, however, which is important in District 2A-5.
“It's a physical district,” Hedge said. “Nobody passes. Everybody grounds and pounds and plays good defense. It's kind of like an endurance test.”
The key for Meeker will be the development of a young offensive line.
“They better play older than they are,” Hedge said. “If we stay healthy and we grow up, we will be all right.”
HASKELL WANTS NO MORE 2-8 SEASONS
Haskell's opponents can throw away any game film on the Haymakers from last season.
Coach Greg Wilson is scrapping the wishbone and going to a shotgun formation.
“It's going to be a totally opposite look,” Wilson said. “We will get under center some but we will be in shotgun most of the time.”
Even in the shotgun, the Haymakers still plan to run the football most of the time, Wilson said.
“We are going to line up in a bunch of sets and see if (opposing defenses) can line up the right way,” he said. “We will have option calls at the line of scrimmage.”
The Haymakers have been just 2-8 the past four seasons. Haskell only has four seniors on this year's squad.
Wilson believes it is important for his young club to have success early to build confidence, something that might be difficult with Colcord, Morris and Spiro as the Haymakers' first three opponents.
“We got to win early so we will believe in what we are doing,” he said. “I feel like we have the athletes. We are going to better than 2-8, I will tell you that.”
District 2A-5 Coaches' Poll
1. Okemah (8-4)
2. Stroud (12-1)
3. Meeker (5-6)
4. Holdenville (2-8)
5. Haskell (2-8)
6. Mounds (2-8)
7. Wellston (0-10)
Note: Last season's record in parentheses.