By BEN JOHNSON
Moods were sour the last time Keys players and coaches sauntered off the field at Cougar Stadium. The Cougars had just been dealt a humiliating 48-0 loss to Hilldale in a game that could have cemented Keys’ playoff positioning.
Even Keys coach Gary Willis didn’t mince words when describing the gigantic letdown.
“Absolutely embarrassing,” he said. “...We weren’t ready to play and that’s my fault.”
Yet, the sun rose in the east the next day and the Cougars moved on. Turns out, that was bad news for Jay and Locust Grove.
Keys regrouped and won two straight District 3A-7 games to close out the regular season. That meant the Cougars firmly entrenched themselves in third place in 3A-7, meaning they were going to Roland for the first round of the playoffs.
Well, that was until Keys benefited from Sequoyah’s absence in the Class 3A playoffs. Once Sequoyah was ruled out of the postseason field, Hilldale, Keys and Lincoln Christian all moved up one spot in the standings, while Jay backdoored its way into the playoff mix.
Now, Keys finds itself hosting Spiro in the first round instead of traveling south toward the Arkansas state line.
“You always want to play a home game, whether it’s in the regular season or playoffs,” Willis said. “The seniors get to play one more game at home, and that’s good because we don’t like the way (the Hilldale game) went down.”
To make matters worse, Keys has been outscored 153-9 in its last three home games. But, to the Cougars’ credit, those were against top-10 clubs in Sequoyah, Vian and Hilldale.
Regardless, Keys senior offensive lineman Blake Maxey if psyched up about playing at home.
“It’s definitely special,” he said. “There’s nothing like playing at home. We just have to make sure it’s a good one. We want to close out on a good note.”
In order for the Cougars (6-3) to advance to the second round — where they would face the Henryetta-Metro Christian winner — for the second straight season, Cody Cole and Trevor Eubanks have to again carry the load on offense. The duo has combined for 1,680 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing this season.
“Trevor and I came together as brothers, and we’ve worked really hard this year to get to where we are now,” said Cole, Keys’ leading rusher with 1,003 yards and 16 TD’s on 95 carries.
Keys’ rushing attack also has caught the eye of Spiro coach Chris Bunch.
“The Eubanks kid does a super job of running the ball,” said Bunch, whose team finished the regular season 6-4 and third in 3A-8. “We have to try and contain him.
“The tailback (Cole) has got a lot of speed, and one thing we can’t allow is for them to break the line of scrimmage against us.”
The Bulldogs, making their 41st playoff appearance, will switch from trying to shut down Checotah’s aerial attack to bottling up Keys’ rushing rampage. In Week 10, Spiro was able to limit Checotah offensively while beating the Wildcats 26-18.
By knocking off Checotah, Spiro moved up a spot in 3A-8 and avoided taking on the top team in 3A-7 in the first round.
“We didn’t want to have to play Tahlequah-Sequoyah, if they were still in (the playoffs),” Bunch said. “We felt like we had a better chance playing the second-place team. And we played well against Checotah last week.”
Less than 24 hours after beating Checotah, Bunch said the Bulldogs started preparing as if they were going to face Hilldale in the first round. However, that all changed once the 3A playoff brackets were posted and Sequoyah had been ruled ineligible for postseason play.
“We had already worked a little bit on Saturday to prepare for Hilldale,” Bunch said. “We had worked a little on Keys, just in case something happened. We just had to try and figure out more about (Keys).”
Once the Cougars realized they would be playing Spiro, they started trying to figure out how to contain Spiro tailback Jermaine Jimmerson. The Bulldogs’ senior running back has amassed 1,141 yards and 11 touchdowns on 161 carries this season.
“They are very athletic,” Willis said of Spiro. “Their skill positions are very good with good speed. The quarterback and tailback are both capable of going to the house at anytime, so we have to focus on shutting down the other team’s running game.”
For both Keys and Spiro, the start of the playoffs doesn’t mean significant games are just now starting. Both clubs have played in playoff-caliber contests in the last couple of weeks.
In fact, Willis told his players that without two wins in the final two weeks, they wouldn’t make the postseason.
“That’s exactly what we did after Hilldale,” said Willis, who did admit that one victory in his club’s final two games would have still netted a playoff berth.
“We told the team right then, ‘you better find some character about you right quick.’ The paper can either read, ‘Keys gets in by beating Jay’ or ‘Cougars miss the playoffs after losing to Jay.’ It worked and the kids stepped up and showed they have some character about them.”
Spiro at Keys
When: Friday night at 7:30.
Where: Cougar Stadium.
Radio: Game will air live on KEOK, FM-102.1.
Nicknames: Keys Cougars; Spiro Bulldogs.
Coaches: Keys (Gary Willis, 74-46, 11th season); Spiro (Chris Bunch, 179-92).
Records: Keys 6-3; Spiro 6-4.
Rankings: Neither team is ranked in Class 3A.
Series record: First meeting.
Last week: Keys 52, Locust Grove 24; Spiro 26, Checotah 18.
News to know: This is Keys’ 10th playoff appearance and Spiro’s 41st. ... The Cougars are 3-9 all-time in the playoffs, while Spiro is 38-39-3. ... Keys is hosting its third straight first-round home playoff game. The Cougars lost to Seminole two years ago before beating Valliant last season. ... Spiro’s 41 playoff appearances without a state championship are the most in Oklahoma. ... Keys finished second in 3A-7 after Sequoyah was forced to forfeit all of its games this season. ... The Cougars have been outscored 184-76 at home this year.
Players to watch
Keys: Trevor Eubanks (QB), Cody Cole (RB).
— Eubanks has rushed for nine touchdowns this season while throwing for eight scores. The senior quarterback has also ran for 677 yards on 89 carries.
— Cole is the Cougars’ leading rusher with 1,003 yards and 16 TD’s on 95 carries.
Spiro: Jermaine Jimmerson (RB), McKinley Whitfield (WR).
— Jimmerson rushed for 157 yards on 24 carries last week against Checotah.
— Whitfield caught eight passes for 113 yards from quarterback Trevon Mitchem last week.
Looking ahead: The winner of the Keys-Spiro game will play the winner of Metro Christian-Henryetta on Nov. 16.