Tahlequah will begin a new chapter Friday when it opens its season on the road against Sapulpa.
The Tigers will be starting their third quarterback in three years in junior Cash McAlvain.
It wasn’t the intended plan for head coach Brad Gilbert.
McAlvain wasn’t projected to be the starter with the return of a more seasoned senior in Brody Younger, but Younger suffered an off-the-field injury over the summer to open the door.
There will be significant help for McAlvain as he will be surrounded by a strong nucleus of experienced players to aid his transition.
“Obviously we are starting a quarterback who is starting his first game in Cash McAlvain. He is surrounded by a lot of players who have made plays for us on Friday night,” Gilbert said. “So it’s important for us to get him comfortable and get those guys involved early.”
McAlvain shined in his first scrimmage against Collinsville, completing 10 of 14 passes for 197 yards with five touchdowns. In a limited role last year as the backup, he completed 5 of 7 passes for 41 yards with a touchdown in two games.
Key players returning offensively to help McAlvain along include receivers Beckett Robinson, Race Stopp and Jacob Morrison, running backs Darryn Spahr and Caden Waits, and tight end Brayden Northington.
Robinson, a Swiss Army knife for the Tigers, had a team-high 46 receptions for 480 yards and four TDs last year as a sophomore. He also rushed for 157 yards with three TDs and had a passing touchdown. Stopp finished with 28 catches for 266 yards and had a pair of touchdowns, Northington had 15 receptions for 411 yards and a team-best seven TDs, and Spahr rushed for 354 yards and four touchdowns.
Gilbert has guided the Tigers to a program-record nine consecutive playoff appearances. Tahlequah went 3-8 last season in the first of what will be a brief two-year appearance on the Class 6A-II level.
The Chieftains defeated the Tigers, 39-35, in 2022 at Doc Wadley Stadium in Tahlequah.
“Excited. The season is here and obviously getting to play on Friday Nights is why we prepare all off-season,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got a good cast of veteran players, who have seen a lot of snaps on Friday.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Tahlequah will be led by a strong cast of linebackers – Northington, Jayden Moore, Morrison and Mason Watkins – who have a ton of experience. Moore collected a team-high 98 total tackles in 2002. Northington led the team with nine tackles for losses, and Morrison posted 57 tackles and five tackles for losses.
“Defensively we have 47 total starts from three of our four linebackers. Those guys need to make some plays early and make those guys in front of them right. It should be exciting,” Gilbert said. “Sapulpa is a very good team. Explosive offensively and very solid on defense.”