Norman High senior offensive lineman Yemi Oyesayna walked off Harve Collins Field for the final time in tears.
The Tigers had finally done it. Last week's win over Edmond Santa Fe at home had put them in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
The rebuilding process would give this senior class some reward after all.
Three years ago, the program was in disarray. Just around 50 athletes were willing to put on the orange and black by the end of the season, fewer than the school's cross country program.
NHS finished 1-9 for the second straight season. Making it worse for the Tigers, their crosstown rival had emerged as a power, making three straight trips to the postseason, and reaching the state title game in 2016. A few notable players jumped ship from NHS to give North a boost as it looked like a long road back to being competitive.
“Going from 1-9, 1-9, 1-9 to 6-4 and in the playoffs, it's insane,” senior cornerback Gunnar Luna said.
The seniors needed this junior class to do it.
As freshmen they went undefeated, signaling hope during that wretched 2016 year. They were so good, then-coach Greg Nation pulled a few up to varsity. Quarterback Cade Horton made his debut in the season finale for Jake Ogle, a junior basketball star who was making his return to football after sitting out his sophomore season.
Horton didn't excel right away. He completed 2 of 6 passes for 31 yards with a touchdown and ran for 24 yards on two carries, showing flashes, but not yet looking like the quarterback NHS needed to take it back to the playoffs.
“I've grown and matured,” Horton said. “I know how [offensive coordinator Michael Collins] wants this offense ran and the grand scheme of what this offense can do. I just think I know this offense better and I know how to work it better.”
Last year's season was derailed in large part because of Horton's ankle injury, which he sustained in the non-district finale against Moore. He played through it, but ultimately had to sit out the final three games with an illness. It was a third straight 1-9 season, the first time that's happened in NHS' long and storied history, and with a young, inexperienced defense, coach Rocky Martin had to accept the fact that it was going to take some time.
“It's frustrating when you're going through, I don't even know how many points we were averaging giving up last year, but I knew we were young and what we were running was completely different than what we were running the previous year,” Martin said. “We knew we'd be all right defensively and then they continued to get better each week, and it's shown.”
When the team lost at Yukon this season, Martin fought off similar feelings.
He believed this team could accomplish more and despite that feeling to the outside world, like the Tigers were about to sink again, he kept the faith.
His players did too. The Tigers brushed aside the 0-2 start to district play to win four of their final five, becoming just the second team since the Class 6A-I split to make the playoffs after starting with back-to-back district losses by finishing third in the state's toughest district.
Will their magical run continue this week? Owasso presents a challenge. The No. 5 Rams (6-4, 5-2 District 6AI-2) are coming off their first state title since 1974, and just played perhaps their best game of the season in a 41-7 win at No. 8 Putnam City North. They feature legendary coach Bill Blankenship, who led Union to three state championships and even took Tulsa to a Conference USA title in 2012.
With senior quarterback Will Kuehne and star running back Isaiah Jacobs, Owasso has experience the No. 4 Tigers (6-4, 4-3 District 6AI-1) lack. Yet, there is something to be said for momentum, and the journey back to the playoffs after the worst run in school history has provided that.
“It's just this group of kids,” Martin said when asked what he's valued the most this season. “Coming out to practice everyday is fun. They work. Going into Week 8, Week 9, a lot times teams are just going through the motions, and these kids show up to work every single day. Their work ethic has been the most impressive thing for me.”
Last five playoff appearance and first round result
2012: 9-2 (W, 38-15 vs. Yukon)
2011: 7-4 (L, 45-34 at Owasso)
2010: 8-3 (L, 51-44 at Owasso)
2006: 9-2 (L, 30-27 vs. Norman North)
2005: 9-2 (L, 52-16 vs. Mustang)