Pretend for a moment that aliens invaded Tulsa. For the sake of argument, they are nice space invaders. The city of Tulsa enlisted your service. Your charge? Showcase one sporting event that defines Tulsa.
There is no denying the abundance of options. The Talons, Oilers, Drillers, Shock and 66ers could fit the bill. Perhaps a nice college basketball contest at the Reynolds Center or Mabee Center would work.
You could even make the argument of championship golf, if they landed at the exact moment in time when Southern Hills was the center of the golfing world.
However, none of these would capture the true essence of T-Town's most passionate fan base.
Is there really any question where you would take the visitors?
Football in the state of Oklahoma is sacred and rules all. Pick a stadium on any Friday night during this fall, and everyone and their mamas and daddies will be out for high school football. The sidelines are electric. The crowd is buzzing. The students are full of pride.
It is hard to argue against the numbers. When cross-town rivals battle on the gridiron, Tulsans turn out in droves.
Like it or not, you sophisticated major league types, T-town gets its sports fix from the high schools. And an occasionally OU, OSU and sometimes TU game.
A year ago, however, things looked bleak. Several Green Country high schools were besieged by rule violations. Scandal! We were shocked. The usual suspects were rounded up.
It was a trying time for all.
(If you want to get the full-spectrum report on what happened last year and what's being done for this year, check out "Brain vs. Brawn" in the July 22-28 issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly.)
Coaches cringed as more schools found their name on the list. Athletic departments scrambled to read and re-read guidelines and handbooks. Some players, through no fault of their own, were left disappointed and out of the playoffs.
"People were educated," said Dr. Stephanie Springs, director of athletics at Tulsa Public Schools. "We need to make sure we are doing the paperwork right and following the rules. It opened a lot of people's eyes. If anything good came out of that, it was certainly that."
This past April marked Springs' 14th year on the job. When she took over the AD role for TPS in 1997, the school system was fighting a Title IX lawsuit. Many figured her hiring was a public relations move.
She battled stereotypes, while disgruntled employees in the school system made her life difficult. Nothing compares to the trepidation of last year's continual hammer coming down.
On the bright side, 2010 is shaping up to be a much better campaign. The focus on football has returned.
On Aug. 9, a professional development workshop was held specifically for coaches, Springs said. She enlisted the help of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, and with them, the group sent a board member for a two-hour presentation of the OSSAA rules.
There are 23 rules that span 37 pages (ossaa.com). The emphasis is being placed on rules 8 and 9: "The ones that can really get you into trouble," Springs said.
Those rules give clear stipulations about athletic participation and recruiting for extracurricular activities in Oklahoma that must be followed.
So with that, we turn the page on last year and march forward to another exhilarating campaign.
Two schools immediately come to mind when you think about 2010 high school football in Tulsa. Both face enormous pressure but for contrasting reasons.
Ready to Sting
"I love Coach Hall," Springs said in no uncertain terms. She was referring to Booker T. Washington's new head coach, Darrell Hall. Former head football coach, Antwain Jimmerson, resigned this past January.
Booker T. Washington is synonymous with athletic greatness. You would be hard pressed to find another high school with as many National Football League players as the Hornets have produced.
Coach Hall understands the legacy and embraces the challenges at hand. His previous head coaching stint at Star Spencer ended with his squad hoisting the 4A State Championship trophy.
Hall takes over a program that is two years removed from the 5A State Championship. Last year's violations of allowing ineligible athletes to play rocked the Hornets. The previous staff's missteps did not deter Hall from taking the job. His only reservation was leaving Star Spencer.
"It's like anything else," Hall said on the scrutiny his school might face this season. "I felt like we were going to be looked at with a fine tooth comb. We will be. That's never going to change. When you are one of the top programs, people are going to look at you harder."
His knowledge of Tulsa and the football on the east side is limited. He took the job in March but is becoming more engrained in the program and community by the day.
"The people in the community have been very supportive and looking to help any way they can," he said. He also cites the administration, his players and parents as vital supporters.
Hall might not fully understand what awaits him in district play -- only time will tell if he was the right hire -- but one thing is certain: His team will be competitive on the gridiron.
"We'll play hard, disciplined ball," he said. "We are going to do what the opposing teams allow us to do."
Going to give the Hornets a stacked line? They will throw on you. Dropping back in pass coverage? They will run on you. This is every coach's ideal game plan but only a handful of schools have the talent to do it.
Derrick Alexander Jr. and Dillon O'Carroll are returning starters on the offensive line. The two anchors provide senior leadership to the most underappreciated group in football.
The quarterback position is up for grabs. Regardless of who takes the snap come game time, the Hornets field another game breaker in the backfield.
Isaac Bennett is one of the top running backs in the state. The inclination would be to compare him to great BTW running backs of the past, such as Felix Jones.
"I don't want to compare him to anybody," Hall said. However, Hall was not here when past players blazed opponents.
"I've seen some film and things," he said with hesitation. "He has all the talent to do what those other guys have done. How about that?"
Bennett has good size and great speed. He captured the state championship in the long jump in 5A this year.
"He can stop on a dime, he can run over you and he can out-run you," Hall said. "He has all the tools."
The defensive side is equally impressive. Dante Barnett leads the defensive backs. He pulled down nine interceptions from his safety position a year ago.
The interior of the defensive line is formidable, and the linebackers are ball hawks. Several starters return from a team that held Carl Albert (state champions) to six points and Bixby (state runners-up) to two points.
The Hornets defeated both the state champs and runners-up a year ago. Imagine the agony they felt when their postseason was taken away from them.
"The kids are buying into what I expect to be done," he said. "We talk about the little things. There are no complaints whatsoever. It is great to have a hungry team."
The participation in the summer Pride program, a voluntary workout for athletes, is terrific. As long as the team continues to progress at this rate, the sky is the limit.
"We're not judged by district championships," Hall said. "We want to win a state championship.
"They've got a chip on their shoulder. We expect to win it."
Hall's first season on the sidelines will be the most watched coaching debut in T-Town since Kevin Wright took over for Bill Blankenship at Tulsa Union.
When that occurred four years ago, it turned into a debacle that lasted only one year. The school quickly put out the fire by bringing Kirk Fridrich (spelling of this name?) back home.
Something to Prove
If you are going to profile two schools for a high school preview, you better talk about the 6A two-time defending state champs.
Fridrich enters his fourth year as head coach at Union. He served under current University of Tulsa assistant Bill Blankenship for nine seasons. His knowledge and previous relationships helped immensely when he left Owasso and took over the Redskins.
Talk about a job with towering expectations. "You want to have that expectation," Fridrich said. "That is one of the things you battle as a coach. All coaches want to win a championship. Those are some of the things I tried to change when I was there (in Owasso). It is different (at Union). It's not any more of an expectation than I have on myself."
The quest for a three-peat will be tedious. The roster lists few returning players on offense and defense. The majority of this year's starters will be new guys.
"I think we'll have a young team," he said. "We talk about being ready on week 11. That is when the playoffs start. I think we'll have some growing pains. I also think these guys will be ready to play when it counts in the playoffs," Hall said.
The keys to the offense are being handed to Kale Pearson. He was the backup QB a year ago but saw plenty of playing time at receiver.
The coaching staff will rely on seniors Christian Hood, Blake Jones, Chance Haley and Jalen Hearron until the younger players get up to speed.
"We really are excited to see how those offensive seniors come through for us," Fridrich said.
On the defensive side of the ball, the outlook is pretty much the same. The Redskins need several inexperienced players to gain confidence in a hurry.
The defensive line should be a point of strength, especially if Michael Peterson can overcome the injury bug that sidelined him much of last season. Blace Walser returns at the mike linebacker position. He led the team in tackles a season ago.
The Union Multipurpose Activity Center (UMAC) houses the football coaching staff. The $20 million facility is approaching its seventh birthday. It still shines and sparkles.
A year ago the Bixby Spartans fell just short of the 5A state championship. Now, the South Tulsa team enters 6A with a new coach and new leadership on the field.
The Spartans have hung their helmet on strong defensive play, and 2010 will be no different. Andrew Lemon, Garrett McKenzie and Garrett Thomas anchor the linebacker position and hope to push the Spartans into 6A contention.
Could this be the year the Broken Arrow Tigers break the Union and Jenks stranglehold on the 6A title? Head Coach Steve Spavital hopes so.
The Tigers return Archie Bradley behind center. The defense will be called upon to keep games close, while Bradley finds new weapons this season.
The Cascia Hall Commandos may not play with the big boys in 6A but make no mistake about their 3A dominance. The three-time defending state champs look to add a fourth to their mantle.
Regardless of which talented quarterback takes the snaps, he will be backed up by a stout defense.
What Green Country football preview would be complete without mentioning the Jenks Trojans? To be fair, they have received plenty of attention during the past year.
The Trojans do not rebuild ... they reload. At times, they look like a college-sized program with huge linemen and physically gifted skilled players. The only thing standing in their way continues to be Union.
Keep up with who's rising to the top and who's not making the grade in our weekly sports column.
Kicking It Up a Notch
Ask any University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane fan what the lasting image was of the 2009 season, and chances are you will get one of two answers. One, odd nights for college football, and, two, quarterback G.J. Kinne running for his life.
The first issue resolved. In an attempt to expose TU to the nation, the school scheduled any and all nights of the week a national spotlight game was available. Only two non-Saturday games decorate the schedule this season.
The second issue appears to be solved by the following numbers: 78, 73, 53, 72 and 75.
There is an old saying, "If you hear about the offensive linemen during a game, they screwed something up."
An area of weakness last year in part due to youth and injuries appears to be a strength this season. So here they are in all their glory:
Tyler Holmes #78, LT 6'4" 305 (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada); Brian DeShane #73, G 6'3'' 301 (Tulsa); Trent Dupy #53, C 6'2'' 285 (Enid); Clint Anderson #72, G 6'2'' 285 (Allen, Texas); and Brandon Thomas #75, RT 6'5'' 295 (Cleveland, Ohio).
If these guys do their jobs, the skill positions should get back to huge point production this season. This might also be the last time you see or hear their names. They understand the task and have formed a bond this offseason which should help immensely when the pads start clashing.
"This year we were really close," DeShane said. The unit bonded this offseason to a degree they hope will translate to the field.
"It's a family," Anderson said. "It's one big unit. It's not individuals." They have shared meals including a few cookouts at Tyler Holmes place.
Holmes is an import from Canada. Although most players are away from home, the distance between him and his family is substantial. They lean on each other through thick and thin.
"On the weekends, if you see one of us, you see the other ones," Anderson said.
This "Band of Brothers" attitude alleviates stressful situations that could arise. A missed assignment is met with a pat on the back rather than a dirty look and finger pointing.
And make no mistake about it; the tight-knit group will be challenged from day one by new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who joined the Hurricane after Herb Hand left TU to join Vanderbilt's coaching staff. Hand is the second OC to leave Tulsa for an SEC school in the past few years. Highly successful coordinator Gus Malzhan left TU for Auburn at the end of the 2008 season.
Hand also served as the team's offensive line coach and was like a father figure to the men in the trenches. He spoke to them about football, life and family matters. And knowing Hand, food was on his menu, too.
"(Hand) recruited me out of high school," Thomas said. "Coach Hand was like a father figure to me, but he had an opportunity so I have to move on and develop a relationship and trust with Coach (Spencer) Leftwich."
Hand's replacement as offensive line coach, Spencer Leftwich is no stranger to the blue and gold. He coached the offensive line from 2003-06 before returning to North Texas. Now, he's back at TU, and his familiarity with the program should help with the sudden transition.
"He was the offensive line coach (at TU) when I was getting recruited," Thomas said. "I had the opportunity to talk with him before when I was going through the recruiting process. He is a great guy and he'll fit right in. He's the same kind of guy."
No time to feel self pity. The season is weeks away.
One of the reasons the players felt like building a stronger relationship was the sense of what the other would do in certain situations.
Coaches prepare the players for every conceivable scenario. However, the coaches are not allowed in the trenches. When the defensive line shifts pre-snap, the guys up front are on their own to make adjustments. For the sake of QB Kinne, hopefully the guys make the right one.
"About 95 percent of it is up to us," Dupy said on the blocking scheme at the line of scrimmage. "You have to get up there, identify the front, make your calls and live with them.
"Bonding is huge. If you don't have bonds with the guys around you, how are you supposed to win games with them? How are you supposed to know what the guy next to you is going to do on fourth and one?"
The line is confident in all quarterbacks at TU. Whether Kinne or Shavodrick Beaver takes the snaps, these guys are determined to pave the way. They also realize the ultra-skilled position players can take a routine run or catch to the end zone on any given play.
The Golden Hurricane opens on the road against East Carolina. This Conference USA clash on Sunday, Sept. 5 will be a stern test.
They return home the following Saturday to take on Bowling Green. The 6pm tilt at H.A. Chapman Stadium should have the home crowd fired up for the return of college football to T-Town. Visit TulsaHurricane.com for schedule and ticket information.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the season is here. Dust off your seat cushions, wash your ice cooler and prepare yourself for what matters. Football has returned to Green Country!
(Use these for outtakes and design elements)
Getting to know the Protectors:
Clint Anderson benches 360 and loves mom's home cooking, especially steak dinner or chicken spaghetti.
Brandon Thomas benches 340 and grandmother's sweet potato pie rocks his world.
Trent Dupy benches 425 and could eat a porter house steak topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions everyday. Oh, and a side salad, too.
Brian DeShane benches 310 and digs mom's lasagna and chili.
Tyler Holmes works out with Dupy and throws up 420. He chows down on steak and potatoes with a side of shrimp and Caesar salad.
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