The locker room was quiet – dazed and shocked probably were more appropriate adjectives – as the Victory Conqueror coaching staff sat in their office, and the players slowly moved to go home, as they all had the same numbers pounding in their heads, 135-26.
That was the combined score of the last three games – the last 46 coming at the hands of a Henryetta team that they thought they thought that they could compete with, after losing to Holland Hall and Tahlequah Sequoyah.
The question on everyone’s mind was what to do next. What to do when your program is 1-14 over the last fifteen games? What to do after being steamrolled for 413 yards on 68 Knight carries – when your offense only had the ball fourteen minutes for the entire game?
It was a simple answer that echoed in the office and then in the locker room the next day as they gathered to watch film and prepare for the next week’s opponent, “We stand.”
Ephesians 6:13 says that, “…when you’ve done all you know to do, you stand.” This year was supposed to be different. This was a new team – new coaches – and the field had even been re-dedicated before the season started. Things were supposed to change.
Then why? Scripture tells us that the mark of a righteous man isn’t how long he stands on top, but how many times he or she gets back up after they’ve been knocked down.
The answer to their question was to do what they did every week – watch film, game plan, practice and get better every day. What else were they supposed to do?
The season was only four weeks old and they’d played one district game. True, they’d only beaten Webster in the season opener 37-26 – a team that everyone had assumed that Victory should beat, but…
This district was supposed to easier than last year, after playing four out of the four semi-finalists in the Class 3A playoffs in 2009. But with the 46-12 drubbing fresh on everyone’s minds, and the fact that the Checotah Wildcats were coming to town, there weren’t too many optimistic people around. Especially when you figured that Checotah was the favorite for many to win the district since they had reached the quarter finals in 2009.
But after junior quarterbacks Caleb Bowen and Matt Tedescucci threw for a combined 316 yards passing – including a 71 yard strike from Bowen to sophomore Cole Taylor, and then an 80-yard bomb on which Tedescucci found Bowen streaking down the right sideline – the Conquerors walked away with a 28-20 win and hope that their season wasn’t over. There was still hope that the season could still be different.
Looking back on that October evening, it’s also important to remember that Bowen helped seal the win when he picked off an errant Wildcat pass and then took it 40 yards to the end zone with 8:09 left in the game. Junior cornerback Daniel King put the finishing touches on defensive coordinator Gerard Myle’s defensive effort with a diving interception in the end zone with just 1:43 left on the clock.
Maybe the biggest difference in the game, and what would turn out to be the biggest difference between the rest of the Conqueror season compared to the 15 games prior was the Conqueror’s willingness to stand and fight. During the middle of this decade, when Victory was making a run to the state title game, and almost never losing a district game, everyone knew that when they played Victory, it was going to be a hard-hitting game and that they were going to have to out-fight the Conquerors to win.
Led by senior Gary Lee’s 17 tackles, the Victory defense showed for the first time in 2010 the same kind of grit and determination that had once been a trademark of Victory football – and not just on the defensive side of the ball either.
Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 6:12 to, “fight the good fight of faith.” In Ephesians 6:12, he tells us that “we are not at war with flesh and blood…” Christians are in a war – in a war we get knocked down in, bloodied, and battered as well from time to time.
But that’s when the Mighty Men rise up and do like David did at Ziklag, they strap on their swords and go after the enemy, no matter the cost or time it takes to finish the job.
Interestingly, the Week 6 opponent for Victory was the Beggs Demons. A team that Conquerors saw in the spring, the coaches and players all realized the kind of athletes that the Demons had. But if they got the same kind of effort they got against Checotah, then it was more than possible for them to go into Beggs home turf and come out with a win.
But after a fumble returned for a touchdown, an interception taken back for a pick-six, and another interception that led to the only offensive touchdown for Beggs on a short, 20-yard drive, it was going to be hard for any team to come back to win the game.
In spite of that, however, and in spite of only 129 yards of total offense, the Conquerors drove home with only a 25-6 loss. True, the loss did make their record 2-4 overall, and 1-2 in the district, but one thing that Victory’s defense did at Beggs was that they fought – Lee and Bowen leading the way with 12 tackles each.
So, going into Week 7, defensive coordinator Gerard Myles’ defense seemed to have turned a corner, but offensive coordinator Casey Willis needed to find an offensive formula that could consistently move the ball and put points on the board.
In their two wins, junior running back John Michael Hill had run for 156 and three touchdowns against Webster, while Bowen and Tedescucci had led an air attack that was able to beat Checotah in Week 5. Which one would Victory decide to ride to a win against Keys, as the Conquerors paid another visit to southeast Oklahoma?
It was quite obvious from the beginning of the game what the decision had been during the week, as Hill carried the ball 15 times, gaining 95 yards, but Bowen was the only Conqueror to find the end zone in the first twenty-four minutes, pushing over on a 6-yard run with 4:16 left in the half. Taylor’s kick tied the score at 7-7 and as the clock turned toward half time, it looked like the game would be a tie when intermission began.
Keys rang up 242 yards in offense against Myle’s defense, but like the week before, when Beggs managed only one offensive touchdown, even though they got into Victory territory nine times, the Conquerors were proving to be stingy when it came to giving up any kind of points.
So yes, Cody Cole had raced 33 yards for a score midway through the first quarter, but since then, Victory had held its own – but that’s when two of the biggest plays in the game took place. Facing a second down on the Conqueror 45-yardline, Keys quarterback Jake Phillips flipped a pass out into the right flat for his intended receiver.
Breaking on the ball, senior Jordan Wood thought that he could make the interception, and if he did, he could stroll into the end zone with nothing but green in front of him. But instead of Victory celebrating another score and seeing the score board showing a 13-7 lead, they had to watch Keys celebrate their own 45-yard score, giving them a 14-7 lead.
Then, just before half time, after the Conqueror offense was unable to move the ball, Keys took over on the Victory 25-yardline and looked like they might extend the lead in the closing seconds. That’s when Lee broke through the line to grab the Keys ball carriers and stripped the ball.
Moments later, senior Evan Rowland grabbed the ball on the bounce and took off down the field, seemingly destined for the end zone. But after the referee came in and blew the whistle, the play was dead, there was no fumble and the score at half was 14-7 still, and the Conquerors had to wonder what they were going to have to do to get the “breaks” to go their way.
Victory and Keys exchanged scores in the third quarter, Hill sprinting in from 26 yards and JJ Ozturk nailing a 27-yard field goal for Keys, leaving the score at 17-14 as both teams came to the biggest play of the game mid-way through the last stanza. And even though Myles’ defense played much better in the second half, this one play would overshadow any effort or improvement they may have shown.
Phillips, the regular Keys quarterback, lined up wide right and then, once the play started, came back left, took a hand off and seconds later found wide receiver Colton Doulliard on a 19-yard touchdown pass that all but sealed the game for Keys. Only moments earlier, when Victory forced Keys into taking a time out to figure out what they wanted to do, it seemed like that finally the Conquerors were going to get the momentum and with it, get their sputtering offense going and come back to score a huge road win for the program. But two first downs the rest of the way wasn’t able to get it done.
Frustrations ran high after the final gun – Hill’s 209 yard effort seemed to have been wasted in a loss that everyone felt should have been a win. Taylor and Lee led the defense that continued to fight for 48 minutes, but when your record is 2-5, 1-3 in the district, close is never quite good enough.
So what next? How about a 55-16 pasting of Okmulgee in Week 8? Hill rushed for 179 yards and four scores, the defense forced seven turnovers, including Bowen’s 50-yard interception return for a touchdown and Taylor finished the night 8-8 on extra points.
That set up a Week 9 battle with defending Class 4A champions Star Spencer. Youth and injuries had marred the Bobcats’ first year in Class 3A, but head coach Brent Marley and his team weren’t taking anything for granted, not at 2-3 in the district and needing to win out in order to have any chance of making the playoffs.
True, a win over Star Spencer didn’t count toward their district record, but needing a win in Week 10 at Roland, a two-game winning streak sounded a lot better than having lost another touch game, especially when that game was senior night and it would be the last time that seven seniors, Rowland, Wood, Lee, Josh Pagtelian, Chance Clemens, Trent Jenkins and Andre Wiley would ever play before their home fans, at least in the regular season.
Hill started off the night right for the Conquerors, capping their first drive with a 2-yard run. He’d finish the night with just 85 yards on 19 carries, but he would find the end zone three times, part of his team leading 13 rushing touchdowns for the season.
Bowen also continued to show his versatility a he threw a 37-yard touchdown to Taylor. This coming from a junior who accounted for 13 touchdowns on the season – 5 rushing, 5 receiving and 3 on defense. That included a 4-touchdown performance in their win over Checotah.
By the time the evening was over, the scoreboard read 33-8 Victory – with Wood putting the exclamation mark on the win with an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown. That meant that the season all came down to one game – the Conquerors needed to beat Roland and Keys needed to defeat Checotah. Otherwise, if the Wildcats won on the road, it didn’t matter what Victory did, but the only thing they could control was how they played and play they did.
At least, after a while they played, and played in dominating fashion, ending the game with a 40-0 win. But after an initial 3-and-out, the Ranger offense found its footing and began an 11-play drive that went 73 yards, giving Roland a first and goal at the Victory two yard line.
That’s when the Conqueror defense rose up and made the play of the game. As the Rangers ran the ball into the middle of the line, Lee and fellow senior Trent Jenkins held the runner up as someone managed to knock the ball free – and after Bowen swooped in and scooped up the ball, the race was on. And there wasn’t a Ranger in the stadium that was going to catch him.
Though the 99-yard fumble return only made the score 7-0, it was truly the turning point of the game. Before the half was over, Hill and Bowen would both add short touchdown runs, making it a 21-0 game, and after a second half where Myle’s defense only allowed the Rangers 27 total yards, the scoreboard said that the Conquerors had done their part – now all they could do was wait and see.
And wait they did – for nearly two hours after their game was over, the Victory players and coaches huddled around cell phones, receiving regular reports about the wild game going on just west of them in Keys. So, while parents streamed back to Tulsa along I-40, we all just waited, waited to see if the three game winning streak was enough to get the Conquerors in.
After a frenetic fourth quarter, that saw Keys score twice in the final 1:20, the score that came over the cell phones was _____________ and the Conquerors were in – with a date at Spiro the following week.
The emotion in the nearly empty dressing room and on the bus was indescribable. As Coach Marley said the next week, “The only thing I could think of when Caleb picked up that ball was redemption.”
Or maybe resurrection was an appropriate word if you look back to the mood in the locker room after the Henryetta game. Either way, when Victory went back to work Saturday morning, getting ready for the Spiro Bulldogs, there was no sense of just being glad to be in the playoffs. This was a good football team, playing good football, and there was a good possibility that they would be playing more than just one game and be done.
“I really thought we’d be playing another week,” Marley said after their 33-7 loss in the cold and the wet in Spiro. “If we just could have…”
After another two-hour trip down I-40 into southeast Oklahoma, the Conquerors and their fans were greeted with a driving rain storm that delayed the game thirty minutes. Sitting across the field in their locker room was a Spiro team that had won its district – a program with a long tradition of winning football and producing college greats like Rod Shoate who went onto star for the Oklahoma Sooners.
The 2010 version of the Bulldogs wasn’t without its own stars, the most important one being senior quarterback Clayton Mitchem, who may be the best athlete that Victory faced all season. But for at least the first quarter, it seemed that even he couldn’t best the Conqueror defense, who played inspired football in spite of the conditions.
While the Bulldogs were being held in check by Myle’s defense, the Victory offense was dominating the game, rolling up 118 yards on 16 plays in the first quarter plus, but unfortunately for the Conquerors, none of those yards resulted in any points being put on the board, with two drives stalling deep in Bulldog territory.
After Tedescucci was picked off in the end zone, Mitchem took the ball on the 20-yardline and began an 11 play, 80 yard drive that would eat 4:26 off the clock and put the Bulldogs ahead 6-0 – Mitchem capping it with a 2-yard run. It was very reminiscent of the 66 yard 16 play drive that Victory had used the week before to take total control of the game against Roland the week before.
After the Conquerors had one more drive end deep in Spiro territory just before half, another drive ended with an interception, the third quarter began with a Bulldog fumble and it seemed that Victory would be able to bounce back quickly from the 6-0 halftime deficit. But when they offense seemed unable to move the ball, it soon became obvious that the Spiro defense had found its footing and the Victory offense had lost its.
When the game ended in a 33-7 Bulldog triumph, the Conquerors lone score coming on a 65-yard strike from Tedescucci to Bowen, all one had to do was look at the stat sheet to understand why the score ended up like it did.
After dominating the first half behind the running of Hill and the timely passing of Tedescucci, Victory only managed 124 yards total offense the rest of the game, while Spiro racked up 265 yards of offense in the second half – Mitchem finishing the game with 154 yards rushing on 21 carries and 153 yards through the air on 8 completions.
There are few things in sports more gut-wrenching than being in the locker room after the season has just ended, at any level of competition. Seniors have played their last game – young men trying to be “men” can’t hold back the tears and emotions that flood their entire being.
But as the 2010 Conquerors gathered around their head coach, not one head hung in defeat. Because as he spoke about a team that refused to quit – about a group of men who fought valiantly right up to the last tick on the clock – we all knew that we’d won that night.
Seniors who would never put on the blue and gold again – who will never walk out hand-in-hand to meet the opposing captains – had helped to rebuild a legacy that had been eroded over the previous few seasons.
Jim Dennis was always fond of saying, “Tradition never graduates.” Tradition may never graduate, but it can most certainly be forgotten when a lost becomes two, becomes four and then that becomes the tradition in the hearts and minds of everyone involved in the program.
“We fought,” Marley told his team, “and everyone knows now that if they come to play Victory, they’ll have a fight on their hands.
No other team in the state came as far as this team did. And even though the pads are stacked, the helmets are hung and all the jerseys are washed and hung in their places, this group of Conquerors is still advancing.
The Word says that the kingdom is advancing and “…the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:17) We are in a battle for the lives of our children and the souls of this world. The 2010 season is over, but the fight in these young men – these champions for Christ – has just begun.
Back in August, the Lord gave a word that Victory Stadium had been built to birth champions. Champions who would take the Gospel to a dying world.
Champions who would take the fight to the devil and give every last ounce of effort and devotion to the cause of Christ. The Bible says in Matthew 16:18 that “…the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.”
That’s because men and women like the 2010 Conquerors don’t know what it means to quit. Even when the score is lopsided against you and there is no hope – they will never quit fighting. They will never give up on God or in each other!