Sep. 17—The energy within the Stillwater High football program is amplified this week.
As usual, the Pioneers are focused on preparing for Friday night, but there's a cranked-up level of intensity, an increased commitment to concentration. Everyone knows a tall task is ahead. It's the matchup senior linebacker Gabe Brown identified as the highlight on the schedule before this season started.
For the first time since the 2019 state title game, Stillwater is facing Bixby. The Pioneers will renew their rivalry with the Spartans at 7 p.m. Friday on the road.
It's Stillwater's biggest test of the season so far, and midway through the week, coach Tucker Barnard had positive takeaways from practice.
"I think they're locked in and focused on this game and this job," Barnard said. "We've had a couple of pretty good days, but it's been pretty intense out there. I think everybody is a little keyed up for the matchup."
Despite the enthusiasm among team members, this isn't necessarily the Pioneers' highest-stakes game of the season. It precedes the start of district competition, and it's only Week Three, so there is plenty of time for teams' standings to fluctuate between now and the postseason.
But the matchup holds extra significance to the Pioneers simply because of the opponent and the recent history between these Class 6A-II adversaries. The Spartans are a colossus among Oklahoma high school football programs, winners of every state title but one since the genesis of Class 6A-II in 2014.
Because of two straight years of falling to Bixby in championship games — first in 2018, then in 2019 — the Pioneers enter this matchup with chips on their shoulders and motivation to avenge their losses.
"Everybody knows that there's a chance that we're not gonna like the outcome of the game," senior wide receiver Ty Smithton said. "So everybody's trying so much harder, every little detail in meetings, on the field. We're watching film over this team; we've done it every single day this week."
The Pioneers and Spartans are both rolling into the rivalry with 2-0 records. Stillwater started its season with victories against Edmond Santa Fe and Mustang, a team the Pioneers defeated 32-28 with quarterback Gage Gundy's gutsy fourth-and-five touchdown pass to Heston Thompson in the final minute.
Bixby throttled Texas opponent Mansfield Timberview 69-14 in Week Zero and followed with a 23-15 victory against fellow heavyweight program Jenks.
The Spartans' dynamic offense features Oklahoma State commit Braylin Presley at receiver/running back — he is the No. 11 recruit in the state's 2022 class, according to 247Sports Composite — and University of Oklahoma commit Luke Hasz at tight end.
Smithton remembers how impressive the Spartans were in the 2019 title game, and though they have a different roster now, they continue to display the traits that define dominant Bixby teams.
"They're fast," Smithton said. "And they're all put together. I can tell you they are all on the same page, so we all need to be razor-sharp that game."
Although the Pioneers are familiar with Bixby's talent, most of them have never competed against the Spartans. Smithton and several of his senior teammates observed from the sidelines when they were sophomores during the 2019 championship game.
Two years later, this Stillwater team is perhaps a bit removed from the heart of the rivalry, Barnard pointed out.
But connections run deep from one group of Pioneers to the next — particularly for guys such as Smithton and Gundy, whose older brothers competed in the 2019 championship — and this team has inherited the competitive fire against Bixby that their former upperclassman leaders had.
Last year, Stillwater's regular-season game against Bixby was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, and this extended wait has created more enthusiasm for Friday night.
Senior receiver Mason Butler, who watched the 2019 title game alongside Smithton, is pumped up about his opportunity to finally face the Spartans.
"This is my first year being a starter, so I'm ready to get out there and play them and see what they're talking about, really," Butler said. "I think everybody's just really excited."
The Pioneers recognize they could potentially meet Bixby later this year if they're battling for the gold trophy, and with the Spartans moving up to Class 6A-I next season, it could be the last chance for Stillwater to take on Bixby in a title game.
First, both teams have to get there.
The Pioneers are striving to put everything in perspective instead of thinking too far ahead, and Butler said he is taking each game week by week. Although the hype for Bixby week fills the Pioneers' locker room, Barnard is careful not to exaggerate this game's prominence among several other key matchups on the schedule.
"I just want this game to be in its rightful place," Barnard said. "It's an important game. It's one of the best teams — in my opinion, it is the best team in the state that we're going against — and it's a great chance for us to see where we are at (during) Week Three. I think we're in a good place, but we'll know a lot more on Friday night."