Aaron Colen, Sports Editor, Aaron.Colen@chickashanews.com
"We don't just want to play for a playoff berth. We want to play for a championship. We want to compete at a high level and make a playoff run."
Those were the words of Blanchard head coach Jeff Craig during the first week of football practice in August. While that may have seemed like generic coaching optimism coming off a 5-5 season, Craig and his players knew the potential their team had, and the Lions have exceeded expectations with a 9-1 record going into their second-round playoff game against Madill on Friday.
"Watching these guys work and watching them through the summer work, and listening to them talk…we can talk about it a lot, but their actions actually spoke loud," Craig said. "We had a lot of guys change their work ethic."
Craig said just getting off to a good start wouldn't be good enough for this year's team.
"That was a point of emphasis from the start of the year," Craig said. "That was something we talked about. The fact that we've had good runs in seasons past. We've gotten off to good starts and faltered in the end, either due to lack of being hungry or just getting tired of working."
Running back Braden Stringer said the improvement started with the way the team approached the offseason, and that he expected to see this kind of improvement.
Stringer is closing in on 1000 yards this season. He has 957 yards on 102 carries (9.38 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns.
Stringer had his best game so far this season in the first round playoff game at Cushing last Friday, running for 187 yards on 16 carries and scoring three touchdowns.
"A lot of us put in the time this offseason," Stringer said. "There's a lot of talent in this group, and we put in the hard work."
Stringer is a junior, and many of the leading players on the team are upperclassmen, giving the Lions plenty of experience and leaders.
"There's a lot more leadership," Stringer said. "We've grown up a lot since last year. We made a lot of sacrifices, on and off the field, and I think we've got what it takes, for sure."
Quarterback Brock Lamle said leadership is something he has made a concerted effort to improve in his own game.
Lamle has thrown for 1860 yards, 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions with a 58 percent completion percentage. He has also run for 390 yards on 60 carries, an average of 6.5 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns.
"I'm always working on everything I can do to be the best quarterback I can for the team, but I really wanted to step in and be a leader this year," Lamle said.
The Lions will need to utilize their experience and leadership, with the challenge of trying to hand Madill its first loss. The Wildcats are 11-0 this season, and won their first-round game 27-14 over Star Spencer.
Madill is a team with a strong, experienced offensive line, a mobile quarterback and big wide receivers.
"They pose a lot of problems with what they do, because they can spread you out," Craig said. "They have tall receivers, and they make you honor and respect those guys, and they run their quarterback inside a lot.
"A quarterback that can run poses a problem matching up with their spread, and also packing it in enough to stop the run," he said.
Lamle said the team's focus this week has been more on its own execution than worrying too much about Madill.
"They're a solid team," Lamle said. "I think they have a good offense and a pretty good defense. But we really want to focus on what we do best. If we execute what we do, we have a pretty good chance to get the win."
For the second week in a row, the Lions will have to take a long trip to their playoff game. Madill is more than two hours south, and last week Blanchard went a few hours north to Cushing.
Craig said he wasn't concerned about what effect that might have on his team, and that they should be used to it.
"I think if this was our first long trip I'd say maybe [it would be a problem], but coming off the last long trip it's kind of the same thing, almost the same distance," Craig said. "We feel comfortable in that respect, because we've already done it. I think our kids will respond well."
Stringer and Lamle both said that since Blanchard's fans travel so well, it isn't so bad playing far from home.
"We have a lot of good fans that make the trip down," Stringer said. "So it kind of feels like home games in a way, except for the drive."
Blanchard will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Madill.