LOCUST GROVE, OK —
When Salina and Locust Grove lace up their cleats tonight, more is at stake than just starting the season at 1-0.
In the Battle of 82, nothing is ever that simple.
Salina saw its four-game winning streak in the highway series snapped last season on a last-minute Locust Grove go-ahead touchdown drive and game-sealing interception. Locust Grove's Mason Fine tossed the game-winning score to Cameron McIntire, and senior Colton Witt picked off Salina's Cale Backward to bring the title of 'Battle of 82 Champions' back south with a 22-17 win.
The Wildcats think the Pirates have had the title long enough. They want it back — and they're going to have to go and get it.
"It makes us hungry as a football team. It was really close, it wasn't a blowout. We lost by five points in a controversial game," Backward, now a senior, said. "It means a lot. It hurt, but we moved on. We had the same record as them last year, but they got the better of us in that game."
"I think that catapulted us last year," Locust Grove head coach Matt Hennesy said. "It gave our kids a lot of belief in our program. We won it in the fourth quarter. It led into a great summer (of conditioning)."
Hennesy's counterpart in Salina, head coach Kyle Fowler, is entering his third season as the Wildcats' admiral. He's 1-1 in the series, including the loss in 2012.
"Our kids feel like they have a little revenge factor," Fowler said. "They'll get in there and do what we need to do to bring it back up here, up north."
Fine, now a sophomore, will take over as the Pirates' full-time quarterback, having never tasted defeat in the rivalry. Backward, meanwhile, will have his only shot at redemption tonight.
"It's my last year," said Backward. "No one remembers freshman through junior year. It's all your senior year, whether you win it or not. I'd like to carry it for the rest of my life, the memory of winning it senior year."
Down south, confidence has reached a fever pitch. The Pirates' mind-blowing offensive statistics from their two preseason scrimmages have fans in Locust Grove smelling more than just the beginning of a winning streak in a rivalry series — though that would be a good start.
Locust Grove's seniors will head into the game as defending champions for the first time in their careers.
Most of them, anyway.
"Last year, I was injured, so I never got on the field. As far as I'm concerned, I've never beat them," Cory Rohde, a linebacker and tailback, said. He'll get his last chance against the Wildcats Thursday. "Everyone's coming to watch this game. There are people that don't even live here that are coming to watch it," Rohde said.
"You feel like you're playing for a 6A title game with all those people there," senior Ryan Woolman said, "but it's just a little rivalry game between 2A Salina and 3A Locust Grove."
Rohde and Woolman — also known as the Smash Brothers — anchor the Legion of Doom defense. Both are chomping at the bit to start bringing down some Wildcat ball carriers.
Woolman, a two-way lineman, admitted that nerves can be running a little high with all of those eyes on the field, but with his size (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) and strength (he bench-presses 425 pounds), it's only a matter of time before he slips into the game. "After that first hit, all your chills are gone," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting in on every tackle."
For Woolman, the contest is even more personal. He used to attend school with many of the players on Salina's roster, including the guy he's going to be aiming to bring down most often — Salina running back and linebacker Bret Fite.
"We're friends, but for those four quarters, we don't speak much of friends," Fite said.
"Our kids know all their kids, they know all of us," Fowler said. "I don't anticipate anything but a war, just like it always is. They are going to be a much improved team. Coach Hennesy is doing a great job over there with them, he's got them believing in his system."
Hennesy was a stranger to the rivalry last season, but one game and one win later, he's firmly entrenched in the rabidly-contested tradition.
"When I first took the job, they said 'We'd rather you go 1-9 and win that one than go 9-1 and lose that one,'" Hennesy said. "I kind of laughed the first time I heard that, but after about the fifteenth time, I said, 'Dang, they're serious.'"
The importance of the annual skirmish was a mild shock to the big-school veteran, but coaching at the smallest school in his career, Hennesy didn't initially believe the hype surrounding the game's atmosphere.
"They said 'You ain't never played in a game like this,'" Hennesy recalled. "I'm thinking, 'Well, I played at Kansas State. I won three state championships at Jenks, coached in the Jenks-Union games, went to the state semifinals with Muskogee in front of 15,000 people.'
"Last year, we get over there ..." Hennesy's eyes get wide. "... I ain't never played a game like that."
Fite, who missed the game last season, is confident in the Wildcats' chances this year. "We're stronger, we're faster. I feel like we're more physical than we were last year," Fite said. "I think that's always going to give us a better chance of giving us a better result at the end of the game."
In a pressure-filled contest, it can be difficult to gauge how players will react. Backward, who is entering his final year as the Salina signal-caller, has plenty of experience under his belt — and he welcomes the pressure.
"There's a lot on your shoulders as the quarterback. You have the ball every play, but I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "I don't want anyone else having to carry it, I want me. It's a lot of pressure, but I kind of like it."
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m at Leonard Yarborough Stadium in Locust Grove.