SEQUOYAH — Rob Gilbreath’s return to the playoffs was a long time coming.
Before his Sequoyah Eagles locked up a postseason berth with a third-place finish in District 2A-8, it had been seven years since he had guided a team beyond the regular season. His last appearance came in 2013 when he was at the helm of Claremore, where he coached from 2008-2015.
Gilbreath then spent two years at Will Rogers before taking the reigns at Sequoyah in 2018 and enduring a 22-game losing streak that was ended this season with a seven-game winning streak.
“It was over-the-top wonderful,” Gilbreath said of making the playoffs. “Especially for our seniors who had to go through two years of trials and tribulations. It was a big accomplishment for them. That’s what I look at. I was ecstatic for them, and after we played a couple of teams there early (in the season), I knew our chances were pretty good to make it to the playoffs. Mainly I was proud because our kids were going to get to experience that.
“The persistence and hard work finally paid off.”
However, in a season full of cancellations and postponements, nothing is guaranteed until both teams step on the field for the opening kickoff on any given Friday night.
Gilbreath learned that the hard way last Tuesday afternoon.
In a devastating turn of events, Sequoyah became a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been raging across the country since March. Two players tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the 7-2 Eagles to forfeit their Class 2A first-round playoff game against Morris only four days after battling with Adair for the District 2A-8 championship.
For a seventh-consecutive season, Gilbreath wouldn’t be taking part in postseason festivities.
Sequoyah was still set to play after the first player tested positive because contact tracing revealed he hadn’t been around his teammates, but whatever sense of relief Gilbreath and the coaching staff felt dissipated quickly thereafter.
“We dodged a bullet right there, but about 30 minutes later, the phone rings, and they said there’s another kid who just got test results back, and he tested positive,” Gilbreath said. “But he was not as lucky. He had mostly football players who sat by him in class, and he was at practice on Monday and in the weight room. He was on special teams, and he was on offense and on defense. The superintendent made the call to quarantine the team for two weeks because of his contact with so many people throughout the day on Monday.”
Gilbreath was given orders to deliver the news of the canceled game this his players later that day, but he never got a chance.
Word spread quickly throughout the school, and everyone on the team was sent home to begin their quarantine immediately.
“I haven’t even gotten to talk to any of my players other than a few on the phone,” Gilbreath said. “No closure has been given. No, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This is what happened’, so it’s been a strange deal how it’s all went down.”
Now he has no choice but to look ahead to what his fourth season with Sequoyah might bring.
Gilbreath loses 12 seniors, most of which played pivotal roles in 2020. Quarterback Blake Bedsworth, Trey Burks, Hunter Bolay and Reese Rumsey are among those graduating in a few months.
However, running back Logan Hattaway, who surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground this season, has two years remaining, and Brett Burks will return for his junior year with some starting experience at quarterback.
The Harwell brothers, Josh and Caleb, Dawson Rudd, Jacob Helt, Jacob Hancock and Sagey Hicks will be back as a solid group of starters.
“They have experience, and they had a good crew of seniors to lead them this year,” Gilbreath said. “Hopefully they know what it takes and have learned that hard work and dedication do pay off.”
He also has an incoming freshman class to be excited about, for it went undefeated through middle school.
A young group of players who already know how to win will be a great addition to the culture Gilbreath is building.
“You never want to put yourself in a position where you have to rely on freshmen to start in a 2A football season,” Gilbreath said. “It’s never really good when freshmen are having to play and start and be a part of the high school team, but they are a special group, for sure. There are several of them who will probably see the playing field next year.”