District A-7 preview: Afton expected to rebound
Afton suffered some key injuries last season, and the result was just its second losing season since head coach Zach Gardner took over the program 10 years ago.
The Eagles return eight starters on both sides of the ball from last year's 5-6 squad, and the opposing coaches expect Afton to rebound. The Eagles are the favorite in the District A-7 coaches' poll.
“Afton has kind of been the big kid on the block every year,” said Hulbert coach Rusty Harris.
Junior Will Amos will take over at quarterback for Afton after starting for Grove as a freshman. He was a state champion in the 800-meter run last spring for Afton.
“He is quite the athlete,” Gardner said.
Gunner Hudson is moving from quarterback to tailback, and the Eagles also return junior wide receiver Briar Julian. Both players missed time with injuries last season.
Afton was the state power-lifting champion, and most of the weightlifters play football.
“We are junior dominated,” Gardner said. “We have a lot more maturity and experience this season. Our kids are hungry and ready to get back on top.”
With a tough non-district schedule, Gardner said the Eagles “will find out how good we are right out of the gate.”
RIDERS STILL RIDING HIGH
Hulbert made its first playoff appearance since the early ‘90s last season, and excitement is high around the Riders' program.
“Last year was such a fun ride,” said Hulbert coach Rusty Harris, a former offensive coordinator at Muskogee. “I am so happy for our community. They have been unbelievably supportive. It's almost like a bidding war about who gets to feed us.”
Harris, who has three sons on the coaching staff, guided Hulbert to a 6-4 season in his first year as head coach in 2014. Last year, the Riders went 8-4 and lost to Prague in the second round of the playoffs.
Hulbert, which drops from Class 2A this season, returns just four starters on both sides of the ball, including sophomore running back Jacob Bruce, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman while sharing time in the backfield.
“I think we are really, really athletic,” Harris said. “Our team speed is really good. We are just young. We will start four sophomores in the offensive line. They are good players. They just don't have a lot of Friday night lights experience.”
Harris is not counting out another playoff run this season for the young Riders.
“If we just play the way we are capable of, I think we will be just fine.”
REJOICE WILL CONTEND AGAIN
Rejoice Christian went undefeated in district play last season and returns senior quarterback/wide receiver Cade Henson, who also had six interceptions on defense.
Henson was the starting slot receiver and backup quarterback last season for the Eagles. He will start the year at quarterback but might move back to the slot as freshman quarterback Riley Walker gains experience, said Eagles' coach Brent Marley.
"He is such a good receiver," Marley said of Henson.
Also back is junior wide receiver Bryce Sanchez who had 31 receptions for 402 yards and four touchdowns last season.
"He is a playmaker," Marley said. "He has got great hands."
Marley, the former Tulsa Victory Christian head coach, is in his second year at Rejoice Christian.
He also has high praise for newcomer Logan Schovanec, who will be another wide receiver and defensive back. Schovanec is a senior but hasn't played football since seventh grade.
"He is explosive," Marley said.
The Eagles return five starters on offense and six on defense, but lost their four starting linebackers.
"We have large shoes to fill in those spots," Marley said.
Despite the losses to graduation, Marley expects the Eagles to be in the hunt for the district title again but knows it will be a challenge.
"When you win the previous year, you got the target on your back," he said.
DISTRICT A-7 COACHES POLL
1. Afton (5-6)
2. Rejoice Christian (9-4)
3. Hulbert (8-4)
4. Barnsdall (4-6)
5. Fairland (7-4)
6. Quapaw (3-7)
7. Foyil (0-10)
(Last year's records in parentheses)