Oct. 14—It's been hard not to look ahead to this game the past few weeks, but make no mistake — Fort Gibson has known rather well where Sallisaw fell on the calendar.
After close call sin consecutive road games in this series, the Tigers (5-1, 3-0) play host to the Black Diamonds (1-5, 1-2) tonight with the aim of ridding themselves of some demons.
Two years ago, they took the lead with 2:15 to play in a back-and-forth fourth quarter, only to see their defense give up a 70-yard scoring march, mostly through the air and capped with a 12-yard toss with 50 seconds left. Fort Gibson with time left got to the Black Diamond 35, but quarterback Cole Mahaney, who earlier in the 35-point combined fourth-quarter connected on a 60-yard touchdown pass play, saw his fourth-down pass fall incomplete with 12 seconds to play in a 39-35 loss.
Last year, it was a hectic first half. Six lead changes saw the Black Diamonds up 26-21 at the half before getting in the first shot to start the third quarter. The teams swapped scores before Mahaney's 36-yard touchdown with 3:41 left made for a 39-34 final count.
"You never forget that feeling, especially losing the same way two years in a row in heartbreakers," Mahaney said. "We kind of felt disrespected by some talk, then you have both games there and our locker rooms butted up to one another. You could hear them with the music cranked and living it up in there."
Fort Gibson head coach Greg Whiteley said it's made for an easy week of preparation and holding the kids' attention.
"It's been a great week of practice and I just feel like our kids are focused up on this game," he said.
The 2019 loss cost the Tigers a home-field situation for the first-round of the playoffs and a road loss to Wagoner. In 2020, Fort Gibson was 6-0 going into the Sallisaw game and never won again, losing five straight to end the year.
The Tigers have won five straight since a season-opening loss to Berryhill.
"We took some things for granted that week and in the game and we got them fixed," said Whiteley. "I don't think this team will be that team again this year."
"We know that if we go out and execute with enthusiasm and play at a high tempo, I think we can play with anyone," he said. "I'm not saying we can beat everyone but I think we'll have a chance against anyone.
"But this — this game is huge for our program. It's been a roadblock the past two years. We don't need to go through that this year."
Mahaney's counterpart this time won't be Sallisaw's Jaxon McTyre. He's graduated and his replacement, Brock Streun, is a sophomore.
"I've was in that situation last year, still a young quarterback," said Mahaney, now a junior. "We need to capitalize on his mistakes."
While the Black Diamonds were 8-4 in 2019 and 5-6 last season, going two rounds deep in the postseason in both years under former Muskogee assistant Randon Lowe, this year's squad has struggled, losing 27-6 to Muldrow a week after falling 49-7 to the Tigers.
Forget about that, Whiteley said.
"Their secondary is pretty good, their scheme is good," he said. "We'll have to make sure our route progressions, our reads and our check-downs are sound. Up front, they're smaller than they've been but they can run a little bit.
"Offensively they have some big guys up front and that sophomore (Streun), he can go. We've seen that with him as an eighth-grader and playing with the freshmen."
But if the Tigers can stay within themselves, those demons will be easier to exorcise.
"Great teams go out and do their thing, no matter who they play," Whiteley said. "That's what we need to go do, is what we do."