Progress Sports Writer
This will be not so much a rebuilding year for the Verdigris Cardinals as it will be a rededication.
A year ago, the Cardinals finished at 4-6 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Coach Dan Nickles expects to get the Cardinals back on the right track.
With experience on both sides of the football, he just might be right.
Junior Aaron Sunday (6-2, 200) is slotted at quarterback and junior D.J. Sam (6-0, 190) will be the bellwether on defense.
“We just didn’t work as well together last season,” Nickles says. “It was a tough year. But we have some good kids coming back, and coming up.”
He has a good mix of seniors and underclassmen.
This season is all about playing and working together for the Cardinals. Senior leadership is always important but the juniors will have to step up and help lead this team to the playoffs, Nickles says.
Sunday played wide receiver last year but has been moved to quarterback. It was an easy move for Nickles.
“He looks for that third and fourth receiver, which is rare for high school football,” Nickles said.
Nickles called Sunday one of the best-thinking quarterbacks the coach had seen at Verdigris.
Joining Sunday in the backfield will be senior Jeremy Tipton (5-7, 170). He rushed for 627 yards ass a junior.
Tipton’s strength could be, simply, his strength. He qualified for the state power-lifting competition.
“He is solid,” Nickles said. “He is running very strong, but he will be even faster when the season gets in swing.”
Although Tipton provides a great running game, the Cardinals will pass the football.
And Sunday will have a trio of fine receivers as targets.
Senior Blake Smith (5-10, 160) was on the receiving end of four TD passes last year. Junior Shane Hnatusko (5-9, 175) caught three scoring passes. And junior Austin Malcom (6-0, 185) might be the best athlete on the team, Nickles said.
Defensively, Sam was the second-leading tackler on the team as a sophomore, with 103, in addition to recovering seven fumbles.
Sunday will be called upon for his skills at defensive back, but he also played linebacker a year ago.
Senior Stephen Jeffery (6-1, 230) is one of the Cardinals’ top linemen, on either side of the ball. Along with senior Ryan Graves (5-8, 230), those two will be solid defenders.
When the Cardinals do take the field, solid defenders and all, they will open the season with a neighborhood meeting.
The Cardinals will travel up the highway to Claremore Sequoyah.
It will be the first football meeting between the two schools.
A rivalry has to start somewhere. And, in this case, Nickles is expecting to start along historic Route 66.
“We are excited to play Claremore Sequoyah because they are a close neighbor and a bigger school. It should be a fun game,” said junior tailback Jeremy Tipton.
Sequoyah represents a major opponent. The Eagles reached the Class 3A state semifinals a year ago, and are favored to win their district and advance deep into the playoffs again.
It is something that people take for granted, a rivalry. Most people don’t recall when a rivalry began, they just know it’s there.
In a conscious effort by both schools, a first-game meeting is expected to become a tradition.
Nickles said: “It’s something to get fired up about early on.”
Having a shot at making the playoffs this season will also get his Cardinals fired up.
The Cardinals will have to travel to Tulsa to take on district favorite Cascia Hall, but No. 2 pick Pawhuska will be in Verdigris. That is the final game of the season, and the Cardinals will know their destiny by then.