Last Thursday I went to the Class A State Championship game between the Tonkawa Buccaneers and the Christian Heritage Crusaders thinking that it had been much too long since I last attended such a game.
I became a Ponca City resident in 2001 and Fred Hilton, the sports editor of The Ponca City News at the time, told me that this area was a hotbed of small school football.
Since it was my responsibility to cover the football teams in area schools we identified as our own, I found that Fred was correct. From 2001 to 2010 six state champions came from our area. In that same time four of our teams were state runners-up. I had the privilege of attending a bunch of state championship games….and, believe it or not, I got paid for it.
In 2002 Pawnee, which featured future Oklahoma State Cowboy Grant Jones, made it to the Class 2A finals playing, and losing to, Millwood. Current Ponca City Coach Scott Harmon was at the helm of the Pawnee team.
The next three years Tonkawa made it to the Class A state championship contest, losing to Ringling in 2003, losing to Harmon’s Pawnee team in 2004 and then winning it all in 2005 beating Washington.
The next year, 2006, was an off year with no area team getting as far as the finals. But in 2007, Coach Joe Turner’s Woodland team lost in the finals to Okeene.
Morrison made the move from eight-man to 11-man in 2008 and in that very first year under Cory Bale’s leadership, won it all. The Wildcats had a trophy cabinet full of state championship trophies competing in eight-man and had to find room for the one they won by beating Okeene which was seeking its third straight title.
Then in 2009 Tonkawa added its sixth state championship by topping Stroud.
The year 2010 was a bonus year as the area had not one, but two state championships. First Deer Creek-Lamont won the Class C championship by whipping Shattuck and then a week later Woodland whipped Stratford for the Class A gold ball.
But that was it until Tonkawa made it to the finals this year and then proceeded to down Christian Heritage 21-6. Let’s see, doing the math tells me it had been eight long years since DCLA and Woodland gave our area a double blessing.
It was especially fitting that it was the Tonkawa Buccaneers and Coach Mike Kirtley that broke the drought. Again in my introductory years in the area, Fred had schooled me on the rich Tonkawa tradition.
As I arrived, the Bucs had been a four-time winner and had won two times in a row, in 1999 and in 2000. The first two had been in 1952 and 1953 long before my time. In fact, I was in my early elementary school years then.
But in 1999 and 2000 Steve Love was the coach and was the coach when I started covering the Buccaneers in 2001. He talked a lot about the Tonkawa tradition and how important it was for his team to be aware of what it meant to wear the black and orange uniforms.
Tonkawa won the district in 2001, but it was Hominy from the same district that eventually emerged as champion. It was ironic that Hominy had won the district in 2000 only to see second-place Tonkawa go all the way in the playoffs.
The Buccaneers went deep into the postseason in 2002, which was Love’s last season as coach. Kirtley, who had been an assistant, took over in 2003 and he continued to preach Buccaneer tradition to his players and they continued to cherish the notion, There always was an expectation of excellence.
The 2003 state title game on Saturday on the University of Oklahoma campus. That morning our area awoke to about eight inches of snow. Thinking the game might be called off, I called the OSSAA and was told that it would be played as scheduled. Driving south I ran out of large amounts of snow at Perry and when I arrived at Norman there was no trace of snow at all.
The game was a good one and Tonkawa led 20-13 early in the fourth quarter, only to see Ringling score two late touchdowns to win 27-20. Brian Bowling was the Buccaneer quarterback. Stony Fath and Chancey Burns carried the ball and a large part of the Buccaneer offense against Ringling was the passing from Bowling to receiver Nathan Geiser, a combination that accounted for 167 yards. The ride home was long, a combination of the loss and the remembrance of the piles of snow back home.
In 2004 the state championship game was easy to get to for all the parties involved. It was played in Ponca City’s Sullins Stadium and involved a rematch between district rivals Tonkawa and Pawnee. As mentioned before Harmon was the Pawnee coach and his team had beaten Tonkawa 35-7 in the first meeting played in Pawnee. That first meeting was the final game of the regular season. Both teams worked their way through the postseason and earned an opportunity to play again. The smart money was on Tonkawa, knowing that it is difficult to beat a Mike Kirtley coached team twice in the same year.
Pawnee had a great team and featured the Jones twins, Gerald and Gerard, younger brothers of Grant. Gerald was the nifty running back that was difficult to corral. Gerard was used more as a blocking back, having more bulk on his bones than did his twin.
Sullins was packed beyond expectations and there were long lines at the ticket gate, as interest in the game had greatly been underestimated.
Pawnee prevailed 31-14, but in my memory the game was closer than the final score would indicate. One of the big plays that I remember was a fake handoff to Gerald Jones and somehow Gerard ended up with the ball and he rambled in for a score. Tonkawa had a Bowling at quarterback, Brian’s younger brother Bo, and Stony Fath was still a solid running back. The losses to Pawnee were the only ones Tonkawa suffered that year.
In 2005, for the third straight year Mike Kirtley took his team all the way to the finals. Tonkawa was ranked No. 1 going into the big game which was played on the University of Central Oklahoma campus in Edmond. Washington had gotten a lot of hype from the writers on the Oklahoma City newspaper and they fully expected an upset. In fact, Washington had been the preseason favorite of all the experts and they were still going with their initial instincts. Bo Bowling again was at quarterback and he showed some of the grit that he would later display in his career in junior college, at OSU and in the Canadian Football League. The Buccaneers ended up winning 28-11. After Tonkawa led 14-3 at the half, Washington narrowed the lead to 14-11 in the third quarter. But after Washington had executed a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter to make Tonkawa fans a bit nervous, Bowling took the air out of Washington’s momentum by returning the ensuing kickoff 90-plus yards for a touchdown to give his team a little breathing room. The Bucs added an insurance score late in the game as Adam Smith intercepted a pass and ran it back 53 yards for a touchdown.
Adam Smith and Zach Kirby were the principal ball carriers and Brandon Cherry caught a pass on a key play that covered 45 yards.
After 2005 there were some relative lean years for the Bucs, (lean years meaning they didn’t make it to the championship game). But in 2009, a determined group of Buccaneers went all the way. There were some close calls along the way, including a 24-22 win over Hennessey in the semifinals and the championship game which the Bucs won 7-6 over Stroud.
Running back Jake Love, who went on to play at the University of Kansas, was a horse in the Stroud game, running for 283 yards, including a 93-yard gallop for the only touchdown and a 43-yard carry late in the game when the Bucs were trying to run out the clock. This game was played in T. Boone Pickens Stadium on the OSU campus. I consider Derek (we knew him then as D. J.) Bishop as a friend these days. The current Newkirk boys’ basketball coach was the quarterback of the team. Kramer Simpson was one of the running backs and Tyler Langston was a receiver. The game was a great defensive struggle, despite Love’s 283 yards, and the Stroud extra point attempt that bounced off the goal post was the main difference in the game. Speaking of defense, I remember clearly one smashing tackle Love made from his linebacker position that rattled the rafters on nearby Gallagher-Iba Arena.
After the 2009 season Tonkawa jumped up a class to 2A and their playoff runs were fairly short.
That all changed when Tonkawa returned to Class A beginning with the recently completed season.
My good friend Lyle Becker, who is the head honcho at the Tonkawa News, was grinning from ear-to-ear when we talked about the change.
“We’re going to go all the way in Class A,” Lyle said. (I’m not sure whether he actually made that rhyme or whether it was me in trying to recall what he said.) “Seriously, I think we’ll be better off not having to play Millwood in first round anymore.”
What Lyle was talking about was the Bucs often finished in fourth place in their 2A district consequently having to play the No. 1 team from another district. And too often that No. 1 team was always very good, very athletic Millwood.
But now the Bucs are back. And hopefully so is the strength of Ponca City area football. This year’s championship game made me hungry to see another next year.