With fall camp in its early stages, excitement sweeps the high school football landscape this time of year.
But not at Stigler High, where despite an impressive 10-2 season last year, preseason workouts have been clouded by an inescapable somber mood.
That's because three weeks ago, on July 20, Cory Cassinger, the team's projected starting center, was killed in a single-car accident just outside of Stigler. It is believed he fell asleep at the wheel.
“He was a big part of the team and the community,” coach Chris Risenhoover said. “So it's been a tough loss. He was very popular among his teammates and throughout the school.”
As a result of the tragedy, Risenhoover said the usual camp adrenaline has toned down.
“It's been a slow healing process and it will likely last beyond the football season,” Risenhoover said. “Many of them were very close to him.”
To honor Cassinger, Stigler will retire his number, and players will wear it on their helmets all season.
“Traditionally, our logos are panther claw marks on the side of the helmet,” Risenhoover said. “We aren't going to wear those this year. We are just going to wear the number 65 on the side of our helmets in honor of Cory.”
VALLIANT TRYING TO AVOID DOWN YEAR
Over the past six years, coach Brett Jones has turned the Valliant program into a respectable one.
Before 2006, the Bulldogs had never reached the second round of the playoffs, going a combined 1-19 the previous two years.
But during that program-altering '06 season, they went 7-4, sparking an ongoing run that includes six consecutive playoff appearances and the program's first two postseason wins.
“We haven't lost a home regular-season game since 2008,” Jones said. “So we've done some good things, but never really gotten on that streak in the playoffs that we would like. Been very competitive, just haven't busted through that door.”
But making that next step may be a stiff task in 2012.
The Panthers lost 16 seniors, accounting for a bulk of their production, and return only one starter on offense.
Jones likes his young core, but it's one that may need time to grow.
“We never like to say the word rebuilding around here,” Jones said. “We've had a good program the past six years and done some good things. So you'd like to think we've built it to a sustainable level. Hopefully our young guys can step up and pick up where the others left off.”
With Seminole, last year's district winner, reassigned to 3A-2, District 3A-8 is wide open this year.
Stigler, 6-1 in league play last year, slides into the roll of favorite, but a cluster of teams are capable of capturing the unclaimed throne.
Last season, seven of the eight league teams won at least four games.
“I'm excited about the district,” Jones said. “Should be a competitive year.”
District 3A-8 coaches' poll
1. Stigler (10-2)
2. Checotah (7-4)
3. Spiro (4-6)
4. Valliant (7-4)
5. Roland (6-4)
6. Heavener (4-6)
7. Eufaula (3-7)
8. Idabel (5-6)
Note: Last year's record in parentheses