The Coweta football program has been knocking on the door for some time now.
District champions in 2015 and 2017. A 10-win season and a district title a year ago. Three straight years with a playoff victory.
But after a 3-0 start in 2021, powered by wins over Bishop McGuinness and Wagoner, the Tigers may be ready to kick the door down.
Three weeks ago, the Tigers opened up the season with a 35-28 road win at highly-ranked and usual title-contender Bishop McGuinness.
They followed that up a week later with a 37-13 victory at home over rival and yearly class 4A favorite Wagoner in the annual "Wagoner County War."
Not only have the Tigers started off the 2021 season in perfect fashion after a 42-6 win last week over Frontenac, Kan., but there was more to the first two wins than meets the eye.
Coweta avenged both of its losses last year, one to Bishop McGuinness that ended the Tigers' season in the quarterfinals and the other to Wagoner, as the Tigers beat the Bulldogs for the first time since 2012 and only the second time since 2007.
“I think the key to our start has been our kids' commitment to doing something special here in Coweta,” said head coach Tim Harper. “We had a very good season last year, but that really just lit a fire in these guys and created a hunger to be even more successful.
“We were beat in 2020 by two of the most successful programs in the state. We wanted to prove that we belong in that conversation.”
Harper, who is in his third year at the helm, thinks those losses in 2020, coupled with some other tough defeats in 2019, stuck with this group and has driven them to achieve what their opponents accomplished.
“In 2019, we lost to a tough Tahlequah team 9-7, the district champion Edison by one, and Bishop Kelley by a field goal,” he said. “The kids that are experiencing this success now are the same kids that lost those close games and realize that it was the little things that beat us.”
Harper spoke about how the success of winning two big games last year highlighted how his team learned from those losses and flipped the script that was unkind in 2019.
“We built on those hard losses a year ago, when we finished 10-2, won the district championship and had big wins on the road at McAlester and Bishop Kelley,” he said. “This streak of Tigers realizes that the little things are what makes the big difference.”
Part of that success can be attributed to the hard-working culture that Harper’s group displays daily, something that has had to change in recent years to take the program to the next level.
“The culture at Coweta was always good,” Harper said. “People were proud of being known for being tough and hard-nosed. However, a difference that we made is in our overall process.
“We said ‘let's keep that reputation, but we will also outwork people year round. We will not lower our expectations. We will be consistent in our effort.’ Being tough on Friday night 10 nights a year is not enough.”
And Harper has nothing but praise for his kids in how they have received that challenge and owned the mindset of hard work, both on the field and in the weight room throughout the offseason.
“We have a blue-collar program that shows up to try and outwork everybody on our schedule daily,” Harper said. “We realize that to be successful during the season, you have to put in the work in the offseason. The difference between Coweta now vs. Coweta past is our kids understand that now.”
For a display of that hard work and leadership, look no further than several key seniors on this Coweta team, including Gage Hamm, a three-year starter at quarterback, two crucial lineman in Maverick McCullough and Caleb Phillips and a leader on defense in linebacker Michael Fletcher.
Gage Hamm/Photo by Christy McCullough
Hamm has thrown for 477 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions, McCullough and Phillips have paved the way for a rushing attack that averages 206.7 yards per game and Fletcher is one of the leading tacklers for the Tigers, recording 21 stops for the Coweta defense.
“Leadership starts with those four seniors,” Harper said. “They have started a lot of football games. They are hungry to be the best they can be and they practice like it.”
But the leadership and willingness to be better than you were the day before runs throughout this team. Harper refers to the 212 degree mantra, a popular motivational mindset that illustrates the drive to go one step further.
“We live by the 212 degree mantra, which is being one degree hotter or in our world, giving that little extra effort. This is the degree that takes us from good to great. We are not quite there yet, but we are getting closer.”
Harper even spoke about how his coaching staff has embraced the 212 degrees life and how everyone is pointed towards the same goal – being one degree better.
“My coaching staff of Scott Chronister, Macklin Chermak, David McGrath, Jeff Falgien, Josh Moses, Joe McHenry, Connor Seaba and Tristan Ridenour are first and foremost amazing men, but also outstanding coaches to boot. We hold the kids' feet to the fire. They know as well as I do, we will not reach 212 degrees unless we do that.”
As the Tigers continue their trek through the 2021 season, Harper likes what he has seen from both sides of the ball and hopes to continue to be balanced and aggressive offensively, as well as disciplined and stingy on defense.
“Offensively, we have to be able to stretch a team's defense sideline-to-sideline and take calculated shots vertically. We have to continue to emphasize our downhill run game and not get satisfied. We have to play physical and smart,” Harper said.
“Defensively, we have to fight for every yard and make the opponents earn everything. We have to continue to eliminate the untimely penalties, something that has plagued us in the past.”
If the Tigers can do that, make no bones about it – their sights are set high.
They know what they want to accomplish – the school’s first state title.
“Our goals are always the same,” Harper said. “We want to compete for the district championship. Beyond that, we want to be the first Coweta team since 1998 to make the state semifinals.”
“And then if we get there, I think the last goal is obvious.”