For many, the success of the Jay Bulldogs football team this fall comes as a surprise.
But not for Coach Warren Kirk.
As the team prepares for for the district championship game - set for 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, at J.B. Earp Arena - Kirk said he's expected the outcome all season.
“I was reading in some of the state media where they say Jay is a surprise team,” said Kirk. “When I took the job last year and coming into this year, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good.
"We had everything we needed to win if the boys hooked up and did what they needed to do.”
Each week, it seems as if the Bulldogs were picked to lose to their respective opponent. But each week, the team has worked together to add another notch to the win column.
“As coaches we are as proud as we can be of them," Kirk said. "They deserve every win and everything they are getting right now.
“It is not a surprise to me they are good football players and all they needed was someone to get after them and point them in the right decision and give them some confidence.
"These guys are playing their tails off and loving every bit of it.”
Kirk wants to see his players grab more success this week - not for him or the other coaches - but for themselves.
“I would love for them to go out and win this district championship," Kirk said. "These seniors are 4-26 in three previous years.
"Those guys were having to play football as 14-15-year-old kids. Now here they are with a shot to win the district title.
"They have a chance to sit back and rest next week with a bye week and then have a chance at two home playoff games."
Kirk said the relationships he, and his fellow coaches, have built with this team means a great deal to him.
“I can’t say enough about my players," Kirk said. "We took our lumps last year but we were there in a handful of games.
"They worked hard this summer going into this year. We have made some changes here and there but most of it been the [players] attitude, effort and commitment.
"That is kind of putting us over the top. They are just a fun group to coach and a fun group to be around. They drive us bonkers sometimes but they will fight to the very end and you can’t ask for anything else."
Winning has made life different for the coaches and team off the field as well.
“It is a lot better feeling than last year," Kirk said. "We worked really hard last year we just came up short.
"This year it has been a wild ride. My weekends at home are much better as they are for all of us coaches.
"Here we are preparing for meaningful game. Last year we went into this game and we were just playing for pride. Let's go finish the year and the boys are starting basketball next week."
But now, as his team prepares for the district championship game, Kirk is proud of what his boys have accomplished.
"Jay hasn’t had [a district championship] in nine years," Kirk said. "I would love to bring it back home. The kids, the school and the town deserve it.
"Jay has been very supportive of this team this year. The home crowds have been unbelievable and even on the road we have had a really great following. I think these players, the coaches and this town deserves what is happening. So hopeful we can bring it home to Jay Friday night.”
Kirk believes the success this season can be used the basis for laying a foundation of winning for the team.
“[When] I met with the seniors early on and talked to them about changing the culture of Jay football to a winning culture," Kirk said. "[With] us having a winning season and being successful, everybody coming back knows now what it takes to win.
"I think it will change Jay for good. We thought at the beginning of the year if we could turn the corner it would have a lasting effect on the program.
"The guys coming back now know what it takes and they can lead like these seniors did. I think it is a big year for the future of Jay.”
Kirk said he is working this week to ensure his players have as little distractions as possible to concentrate on football.
But one event has to take place Friday before the game can kick into gear.
“Senior night I like a little better than homecoming,” said Kirk with a chuckle. “The boys get out there with their parents for about 10 minutes and then they get back in here and get ready for football.
"No parade and shenanigans like with homecoming. I don’t see it as big of a deal. I think the seniors will go play a little harder because it is senior night - and the underclassmen [will] play their best game for those seniors on senior night."
Kirk knows his team needs to play some good football Friday night, if they are to bring home the district title this week against Tahlequah Sequoyah.
“They are a very good football team," Kirk said. "They are big up front and their quarterback and their running back lead them and you have to stop those two. First and foremost you stop them.
"On defense they have some big linemen. They have some good linebackers and they are good in the back end. We have some drives and where we control the game and score on offense.
"On defense we have to stop their run and make them punt the football. We got to tackle well and win the turnover battle. We have to be good on special teams against a team like Sequoyah. We have to play our best football game of the year this week.”
The Indians football coach Shane Richardson also has respect for Jay.
“Jay is a talented team and they are playing really good football,” said Richardson. “We look forward to playing them this week for the district championship. Our team is excited for the opportunity and the challenge as I am sure they are to.”
Kirk believes what his team has faced this season prepares them for this game.
“First we played two rivals in a row then we go into districts and every game was meaningful,” said Kirk. “I think this week we will go out there and get after it.
"This week we have a little more incentive going into the game. You go win this one and you get to say you are district champions. They are going to go play their tails off and go out and get after this Friday night.”
Bobby Cade who has rushed for 1,547 yards and 15 touchdowns leads the Indians.
Jay has not won the district championship since 2009. Prior to that the Bulldogs won it in 1986-87 and 1989. In 1965 the Bulldogs were in the Lucky Seven Conference and beat Picher 33-0 to claim that title before they had football districts.
That was the last time that a Jay football team has went into a championship game undefeated.
Both the The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World have chosen the match up between the Bulldogs and the Indians as a top 10 game in the state.
Jay 14 Keys 13
“We knew going in that Keys was a really good football offensively and defensively they were very physical,” said Kirk. “We knew points were going to be hard to come by.”
Keys took a 13-0 lead in the second quarter with a six-yard run for touchdown in the first quarter and a 46-yard run in the second.
Jay got on the scoreboard just before half time when Gabe Simpson scored on a one-yard run. Adam Becerra kicks the PAT and the game read 13-7 at half time.
We were going to have to stop their run game. Defense we were a bend but didn’t break type of D. Offense we finally got a couple drives in the second half to put points on the board,” said Kirk.
Jay scored the go ahead points in the third quarter when Simpson connected with Brenden Ryan on a 36-yard touchdown pass and Becerra put the winning point on with his PAT and Jay had a narrow victory over the Cougars.
“I am as proud as I can be of our team the way they played Friday night. Their heart and commitment they showed in the second half to come from behind against a very good Keys team and win was very encouraging,” said Kirk.
The game was as close in the stat department as the game was on the scoreboard. Jay edged Keys in total yards 345 to 325.
Jay had 281 of their yardage through air while Keys had 306 on the ground. The Bulldogs had 21 first downs to 18 for the Cougars.
Jay was 40 percent on third percentage Keys came in at 38%. Jay had two turnovers Key had one. The Bulldogs had four penalties in the game for 35 yards and Keys three for 31.
Simpson was 20-36 passing for the 281 yards. He threw passes to six players in the game but Ryan led the way with 161 yards in receptions. Keng Vang had four catches for 51 yards.
Jaden Shotpouch led the team in tackles with 14 while Trader Osburn had 12 and Simpson with 11.
Jay Bulldogs Football District Championships
1965 (won the Lucky Seven Conference title to go to the playoffs)
Just The Stats: How they got here
Lost to Gravette;26-7
Beat Lincoln Christian;70-67 4 OT’s
Beat Locust Grove;38-24
Beat Lincoln Christian;15-14 OT
Beat Locust Grove;45-14
Lost to Victory Christian;49-21 (Class 2A, ranked 2nd)