Norman North running back Bryan Payne was frustrated with his sophomore year.
The Timberwolves went 3-7 and struggled to get there, winning one game in overtime and the other two by a combined 17 points.
“I felt like as a team we could've done better,” Payne said. “We were a good team, I just felt like we just didn't give it our all, or at least not everybody did.”
Two years later, much has changed with the Norman North program.
Wade Standley took over as head coach before last season, working to instill a similar culture to Tulsa Union, where he had previously served as an assistant.
Now, Payne is a senior, helping lead the Timberwolves into Friday's Class 6A semifinals against Owasso at Tulsa Union.
“We're just hungry,” Payne said. “That's all it is. We're trying to go out there and get that gold ball.”
That would be quite an achievement. No West-side team has won a title in 6A since 1995, and if the Timberwolves get past a 9-2 Owasso team that has won nine consecutive games, they would face either Jenks or Union in the championship game.
Standley remembers seeing Payne for the first time on the first day he arrived at the school. Payne, all of 5-feet-5, was at track practice working with the 400-meter relay team.
“He's just flying,” Standley said of that first look. “Then, when we got him on the field and look at him, he's a little water bug. He just goes 100 mph any way you want him to — forwards, backward or sideways.”
Payne wasn't the only sophomore from two years ago to see solid playing time. Corbin Cleveland, Jordan Evans, D.J. Gasso, Beau Proctor and Jaxon Uhles are other seniors on this year's team who saw action as sophomores.
“We had a great freshman year and we were talking even then about, ‘Wait until we're seniors, it's going to be even better,'” Payne said. “I love this group. I wouldn't trade any other group for this one.”
Payne gives plenty of the credit for maximizing the ability to Standley and the coaching staff.
“He doesn't let us have any bad practices,” Payne said. “He doesn't let us have bad anything. We have great practices every day and keep focused.”
Having Standley come from Union — with a stint as a head coach at Liberal (Kan.) in between — helped bring what Standley preached into focus.
“You know Union is the football school,” Payne said. “We already knew we were going to go far and when he came, everybody knew he knew what we needed to do to get there. If it wasn't going to be our junior year, we were going to be right there soon.”
The Timberwolves showed improvement last year, going 6-5 and making the playoffs.
This season, though, Norman North really took off, with a 9-1 regular season and playoff wins so far over Southmoore and Broken Arrow.
“We're happy to be where we're at,” Payne said. “We're going to get it. We wish we were playing today. They're a good team but we know they can be beat. We've just got to stay focused, execute and not let the little things hurt us.”