SEQUOYAH — Steve Cooper could do nothing but nod his head in agreement.
“Yes, last year was a rough year,” said Cooper, the Sequoyah athletic director.
He was of course referring to the Eagles’ 0-10 campaign in 2018.
It was only the third time since 1992 the program missed the playoffs, but it might’ve also been the first winless season in school history. There are no known records indicating either way.
Regardless, it was a new experience for most of the community, including Cooper, who has served Sequoyah for 11 years.
“Our expectation every year is to make the playoffs,” Cooper said. “Coach (Jody) Iams was here for 17 years (1999-2015), and there was only one year we didn’t make the playoffs.”
However, Cooper said he knows the Eagles’ down year wasn’t because of an issue with coach Rob Gilbreath, who is heading into his second season with the program in 2019.
Gilbreath coached eight years at Claremore before coming to Sequoyah, accumulating a 38-46 record and one district championship (2012) with the Zebras.
“Last year, it was a combination of injuries and bad luck,” Cooper said. “We had a really good group that graduated the year before, so a lot of underclassmen didn’t get to play to get experience. We’ve been fortunate for 20 years to have very good teams, and we’re going through a little down cycle, but we’re going to cycle back up eventually.
“We’re in a very tough district, and we’re probably one of the smaller schools in our district. If we can make the playoffs, I think that’d be a great achievement.”
Cooper isn’t wrong about the Eagles being at a size disadvantage.
According to the 2019-20 tentative Average Daily Membership (ADM) report released by the OSSAA on July 18, only Inola (378.64) and Cascia Hall (353.85) sport smaller enrollment numbers than Sequoyah (388.58) within District 3A-4.
Verdigris is the district’s largest, logging an ADM of 423.61.
Cooper is confident the program will overcome that difference with the talented players coming through Sequoyah’s pipeline.
“I think the future looks bright, and we have a lot of numbers at the junior high,” Cooper said. “We’ve got good groups coming.”
Although the Eagles’ immediate future isn’t clear, Cooper can’t help but get excited when he drives past the football stadium every day on the way to his office.
Especially after Sports Surface Management’s recent grooming of the field.
Every year, Cooper has the company refurbish and clean the artificial turf prior to football season, ensuring a high presentation value.
Football season is essentially a three-month prom, so presentation means everything in a sport that is known for its pageantry.
“We’re really proud of our field,” Cooper said. “As far as I know, we were the first non-private school in Class 3A to have artificial turf. We were one of the very first around here, especially.”
According to Cooper, Sports Surface Management uses what looks like a zamboni machine — an ice resurfacer vehicle used in ice rinks — to pick up unwanted items from the turf, including nails, track spikes and bobby pins.
The company also repairs seams that might’ve come loose and replaces crumb rubber in depleted areas.
“When they get done, it looks like a brand-new field,” Cooper said. “It’s a big investment for artificial turf, and you want to make sure you take care of it.”
This will be the last season fans see this particular turf, though.
Placed in 2009, the turf has more than outlived its warranty. It will be replaced for a higher-quality turf at this time next year.
“We’ll hopefully get another good 10 years out of it,” Cooper said. “The warranty is for eight years, but you’re lucky to get 10. We’re on year 11 with our current turf, so we’ve done a great job of taking care of it.”
Editor’s note: 2019 Sequoyah season preview coming this month