Every once in a while, two teams in the same area face each other in a battle that mixes bragging rights with playoff hopes and district supremacy.
For the second time in two years, Grady County gets exactly that. Defending state champions Blanchard welcome local rivals Tuttle in a captivating encounter tonight that could have a crucial impact on how the teams enter the postseason. Last year, Tuttle prevailed in a high-scoring encounter 56-34, but Blanchard went on to win the title. This year, a loss may not be so kind to the Lions.
"The path is definitely more favorable to the number one seed," Lions head coach Jeff Craig said. "Las year, third place wasn't such a bad place to be. It wasn't devastating for us, obviously, but this year is a different story. With teams like Seminole and Kingfisher, there are a lot of land mines on that side of the bracket you want to avoid."
With an undefeated record and a title in their trophy case, Blanchard are, understandably the favorites. That's not bothering Tuttle head coach Phil Koons, however, since he thinks that puts the pressure on the champions to perform.
"When you're the underdog, you're not as nervous," Koons said. "We're fired up and ready to go. They're picked to beat us, and on paper they probably should. But, I imagine that was the case last year."
In that big win, the Tigers came back from an early Blanchard surge to pin back the eventual state champions. Craig said this encounter is all about preventing that from happening and staying patient.
"We've got to be patient and just keep plugging away," Craig said. "We jumped out fast last year, and they rallied. We had a bad two minutes before halftime and we never recovered. The Jones game helped us grow in that aspect this year, so if we just stay patient, something good's going to happen eventually."
The Lions won that game against Jones 21-7, and the most points they have ever let up came in the Mount St. Mary match last week that they won 54-21. Other than that, the Lions defense has been dangerously solid.
"We're quite a bit better on defense this year," Craig said. "Our offense is not as prolific as it was last year, but we're productive. We're not as scary, but we post a different kind of threat."
Leading that threat is senior running back Braden Stringer, who recorded 201 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in last week's win. With fellow senior Braden Bush and quarterback Blake Owen also known for being quick on their feet, Koons said the Tigers are focussed on stopping the run.
"They're a little different in that they don't throw as much," Koons said. "The quarterback runs more, and their wide receivers do a great job of blocking when they do things like bubble screens. When they spread you out, they spread you out to run the ball."
Tuttle also relies on a strong running game with senior Jesse Gregory providing the foundation. They'll need to be on top of their game to come out and get a win that could spell future playoff success.
"There's a little bit more on the line," Koons said. "But, all of these last district games have been important. If we can win it, we have a chance to go into the playoffs with home field advantage, and that's important. We are thankful to be in the playoffs, but it would be nice to be district champs."