NORMAN — The mystery is gone, but will the magic remain?
A year ago both Norman High and Norman North entered the season with more questions than answers. The Tigers were trying to replace Arkansas signee Donovan Roberts and the T-Wolves were still trying to find an identity under second-year coach Wade Standley.
A wild Crosstown Clash left indelible memories, but fans left the field with no idea whether they had just witnessed two playoff contenders duke it out in one of the most memorable Clashes ever or whether they just saw two mediocre teams play a sloppy first game of the season.
Now, we know. We know what Standley has done at North, turning a 3-7 team three years ago into a state runner-up a season ago. We also know how NHS turned out a year ago, with the Tigers seamlessly filling the gap at running back with Imond Robinson and A’erion Hines and advancing past the first round for the first time since coach Greg Nation arrived five years.
More than anything, we know what both teams are capable of. We know that Nation has built a system on Main Street that year after year is able to execute the triple-option offense to near-perfection, with Jakob Dean primed to provide the highlights this year. A few miles up the road, we know North can rebuild with a young group, because the T-Wolves were in the same situation two years ago and wound up in the state title game.
For both programs, the days of “could” are over, and the days of “should” have arrived. And don’t expect that to end any time soon. There is no question, no mystery, about just how good both teams can be under the systems put in place by both coaches.
That leaves just one question: how will they handle that pressure?
It’s a long way from Cinderella to, as Standley puts it, “competing for championships every year.” More fans showed up to watch North scrimmage Edmond Santa Fe two weeks than some 6A schools draw for Homecoming. The high-profile eligibility case that preceded David Cornwell’s even stepping onto the field for North, coupled with the team’s run to Oklahoma State a season ago, will put a magnifying glass on the T-Wolves like they’ve never experienced. They’ll enter every single game with the weight of a target on their backs, matched only by the weight of the expectations they set last year.
It’s a lot for a team that returns less than a handful of starters. And it will only grow heavier every time they step onto the field, both for the T-Wolves and the Tigers who will be across the field on Thursday. NHS is trying to replace a stable of skill players and doing so without the steady leadership of three-year starter Zach Long, now taking his snaps at OU.
Both programs have set the bar so high in recent years that a step back will be viewed as a disappointment, however unrealistic that may be.
And that’s exactly how they want it.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Dean said. “But just because we’ve been there doesn’t mean it will come back that way.”
No, it doesn’t. Nor does whatever happens Thursday night when Tigers meet Timberwolves for the first time since North’s dramatic comeback en route to a 30-20 victory a year ago.
Unless, of course, it does. Like last year, when it propelled North to a historic season and fueled the Tigers to a six-game win streak and their best playoff finish in recent memory.
There’s no mystery left. We know what we can expect from both teams when they meet on Thursday.
And it’s going to be good.
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