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.
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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.