It was a return to glory a season ago for the Sallisaw football program.
The tradition-rich Black Diamonds broke a two-year playoff drought in a big way, winning eight ballgames in 2019. That included a seven-game winning streak, capped by a 4A first-round playoff win against Grove to reach the state quarterfinals.
Now, with coach Randon Lowe beginning his third season at his alma mater, the expectation level entering 2020 has been ramped up. But Lowe wouldn’t have it any other way.
Plus, as a testament to the Diamonds’ resurgence, they were selected earlier this week to wear special Nike Jordan Brand uniforms for the coming season, one of just two high schools in Oklahoma to receive such an honor. The University of Oklahoma’s athletic teams also wear Jordan Brand, which has a distinctive logo, a silhouette of former basketball star Michael Jordan in flight about to go in for a dunk.
Lowe talked about the new uniforms, the team’s breakthrough in 2019 and the higher expectations in 2020 as part of this Q&A session.
Q: How were you able to be selected to wear the Jordan Brand uniforms in the first place?
A: It's a pretty prestigious list of who has it across the country. ... There's only three in Oklahoma, with them being the Oklahoma Sooners, Mustang High School and us. It's something we've been working on a year or so ago and there's a big, long application process. I'll be 100 percent honest with you, the thing that I think got us over the top was KXMX The Mix 105.1 (FM radio as well as the station’s TV cable channel 19) here in town does a coaches' show with us and they broadcast our games and we had a quarter-million people tune in for us last year, and I think that was the number that finally got it for us. ... Being one of the three schools in Oklahoma to have (the Jordan Brand) is pretty cool, I think.
Q: Like you had mentioned, the Sooners wearing the Jordan Brand, that's pretty popular in itself having your team wear the same logo as OU, isn’t it?
A: Right, that's a big deal. Also with us being the hometown of (former OU quarterback) Steve Davis, who I believe is the only quarterback in school history to win two national championships (in 1974 and 1975).
Q: It's also possible the resurgence the team had last season played a part in getting the Jordan Brand uniform too, didn't it?
A: Yes, I think so. I think the guy that was basically 100 percent trying to help us get it done wrote it that way.
Q: Looking at the jersey (online), it is black but the numerals are kind of grayish-looking aren't they?
A: They match the elephant print that's on the shoulders, and then I had to put some orange in it, so I outlined Sallisaw (the word above the numerals on the jersey) in orange. It's the old look that they've had around here for 100 years, with the white outline in orange on the home uniforms. ... Also, we're not doing the away uniforms until next year; they will only release one (uniform set) to you for some reason. So we'll wear the road uniforms we wore last season.
Q: I mentioned the resurgence you had last season. The Black Diamonds finished 8-4 after starting the season 1-3. You had a seven-game winning streak and advanced to the 4A quarterfinals. Before the season, you thought you had a playoff team but did you expect to have the type of season that you ended up having in 2019?
A: Yes I did; I thought we were going to be a pretty good football team. We didn't play like it until the middle and late in the year, and it took us a while to get going, but once it got going, then we were pretty good. I felt like we could have won the quarterfinal game (against Weatherford) and then Weatherford won its semifinal game and got beat 9-7 by Poteau in the (4A) finals, so I felt like we were right there getting pretty close, especially the later part of the year. Now early, we weren't very good yet, we were still learning how to play. Then late in the year, I feel like we became a pretty good football team.
Q: During that seven-game winning streak, you had two big fourth-quarter comebacks at home against Fort Gibson and in the regular-season finale against Tulsa Central.
A: We live by one kind of creed here, if there's time on the clock and downs on the down marker, we have a chance to win, and that's just the way we play. ... We won a lot of close games last year, I didn't really realize it until the other day. We won in overtime against Catoosa, we beat Broken Bow in overtime, and then we scored late to beat Fort Gibson and Tulsa Central and then beat Grove 9-7 (in the first round of the 4A playoffs), so that's five games that were a touchdown or less.
Q: How did last year's run to the quarterfinals help carry over into this off-season?
A: It's business as usual. We don't talk too much about 2019, we're working towards 2020. ... There's nothing you can do about yesterday.
Q: Obviously, I have to ask you about the (coronavirus) shutdown; how has that affected you, the coaching staff and the players?
A: It's what needs to be done right now. A lot of times, you don't get to play the cards you're dealt until they're dealt, and they're asking us to stay at home right now so that's what we're doing. Right now, the ones that are in our thoughts and prayers are the guys out there on the front lines battling this deal every day. We sent our kids a video through our Hudl for a workout and we also sent the girls basketball team and the cheerleaders a video as well, so our kids are working out at home.
Q: Let's look ahead to this coming season, provided that it's still going to be played as scheduled. You've got a very good quarterback returning to the fold in senior Jaxon McTyre, a three-year starter. What do you expect from him going into his senior year?
A: I expect him to have a great senior year. There's nothing that he can't do; he knows our system and he still needs some fine-tuning, but he already checks probably 60 percent of the time. ... Every single Saturday night after he goes out on a date or whatever he does, he comes down (to the fieldhouse) late that night and we may meet until the wee hours of the morning, which he's in there game-planning. He's got a big role in this offense and he's going to have a bigger one next year.
Q: Who are going to be some other key guys you're going to be counting on this season?
A: Ty McHenry (a junior) at tight end is going to have a big-time year. ... He's a big 6-(foot) 4 kid and weighs about 230, and he can catch the football and run around. ... Him and (junior) Rylee Scavo are back as some starting receivers and then we've got (offensive linemen) Jordan Decker and Matt Echols and Trenton Jones and Juan Valadez; all four of those back on the o-line, so with those four, Scavo, McHenry and Jax back on offense, and then we have a whole bunch of young guys just itching to get ready to play.
Q: Then what are your thoughts on the defense?
A: Defensively, we're going to be led by our four-year middle linebacker, Trenton Jones, who's going into his fourth year starting as middle linebacker, so that makes life a lot easier in the box. Then you've got guys back like (senior cornerback) Blake Brown. ... Also (senior lineman) David Decker and big McHenry, those guys started every game last year. So we have a lot of experience coming back and also the thing I like about this football team is they're all pretty intelligent kids; you don't have to re-teach stuff, you don't have to go back over stuff, they know their job.
Q: Of course now, the expectation level will be higher now than it was going into last season. Do you think the guys are going to embrace those higher expectations come August?
A: We're in Sallisaw, Oklahoma; we know the drill. There's a saying, pressure is privilege. You know, a lot of schools don't have pressure, but then again they don't get Jordan uniforms either. Pressure is privilege, and we're going to embrace it.
Q: What's your schedule going to be like this season?
A: The first scrimmage, we're going to (6A power) Bixby. ... Then Zero Week, we're playing Stigler at home. Then the next week, we play (5A) McAlester at home. Then we're going to take a week off and go to (5A) Tahlequah. ... The only swap in (District 4A-4) this year was (Tulsa) Central for (Tulsa) McLain and we open up with McLain at McLain. Then Muldrow's at home and we go to (defending 4A champion) Poteau.