'Back to basics': Stillwater High football strives to regain playmaking identity as district schedule begins

·4 min read

Sep. 24—When Tucker Barnard reviewed film from Week Three, he saw an unfamiliar team attempting to run blitzes against Bixby.

It wasn't the bold, dynamic Stillwater High football squad he knows well. He noticed the Pioneers had strayed from their identity, at times replacing assertiveness with hesitancy. An explosive Spartan offense featuring Braylin Presley, who scored four touchdowns, can have that effect on a team, Barnard noted.

The loss was tough, but it also showed Barnard where the Pioneers need to direct their energy this week. The Bixby game is behind them, their longtime regular-season win streak is over and it's time for district play.

Stillwater has a chance for a fresh start.

"Just aggression, physical play, that's kind of where we're focused right now," Barnard said. "Kind of back to the starting point, back to basics."

The Pioneers open their district schedule at 7 p.m. Friday on the road against Deer Creek-Edmond. As Stillwater (2-1) strives to regain the firepower it had in non-district victories against Edmond Santa Fe and Mustang, Barnard is emphasizing his "Back to basics" message as a way for the Pioneers to overcome the hesitation that bogged them down in Bixby.

"I didn't necessarily feel this during the game, but when we looked at it on video, it felt like we were playing really tentative, almost like we were afraid of making a mistake," Barnard said. "And we weren't really letting loose.

"...We'd like to get rid of that and kind of (go) back to playing with a little more all-out, (reckless) abandon-type mentality."

This means revisiting the fundamentals the Pioneers studied in the preseason. It's the same game they played then, and though the 30-game regular-season winning stretch that began in 2018 is no longer intact, some pressure has been lifted.

"Now that that little regular-season streak is over, we're in the mood to try to start another one," Barnard said.

The Pioneers are still holding on to a 20-game district win streak. To extend it, they have to overpower the Antlers, who are cruising into Friday's matchup with an unblemished record. Deer Creek-Edmond started the season with a win against Edmond North, claimed a shutout victory against Southmoore and, most recently, defeated Yukon, 35-14.

Through three games, Deer Creek's defense has allowed a total of only 21 points.

Offensively, the Antlers' leaders include senior tackle Jacob Sexton, a four-star OU commit who is the No. 5 in-state recruit in his class, according to 247SportsComposite.

"Obviously, they're playing with a ton of confidence and look like a really good football team to us," Barnard said. "Good running game. They've thrown the ball well. ... They've got a really strong offensive line. They were really good in that position group last year and look to be maybe as good or better this year."

Deer Creek has figured out how to put the pieces together to win, but Stillwater knows how to disrupt the Antlers. During the past season, the Pioneers clobbered Deer Creek 62-16 in their district opener.

This season, Stillwater is relying on a drastically different offense. Receiver Ty Smithton is the only returning starter in an offensive skill position, but new key players — including quarterback Gage Gundy, receiver Heston Thompson and running backs Noah Roberts and Holden Thompson — are adapting to their roles.

On defense, Barnard said he thinks the Pioneers can play better against Deer Creek this season, though they ensured a sound victory last year. He said Stillwater effectively defended the run game but couldn't limit the Antlers' passing game as well, so the Pioneers are focused on a more versatile defensive attack this time.

Every chance to fine-tune a fundamental skill is a way for the Pioneers to restore confidence and get back on track when they face Deer Creek. It's also practice for the rest of the season and beyond. One loss hasn't shaken Stillwater's hopes for a big postseason run, which could potentially culminate in a rematch against Bixby.

As district play begins, Barnard is balancing Stillwater's short-term objectives with motivation to work toward the final goal.

"What we're talking about right now is weekly, we're game planning for a new opponent every week, but we're trying to prepare in a way to allow us to win a state championship," Barnard said. "So that's been maybe the newest little bit of mantra. And we'll see. We'll see how it goes, but I've been pretty pleased with practice the last couple days."

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