Jim Ellis

Special to the Grove Sun

MORRISON — They say all good football programs go through a down year.

The 2009 season was like that for the Morrison Wildcats.

Winners of 14 state championships, including 13 in eight-man, the school went 3-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

“It wasn’t much fun around here,” head coach Cory Bales said. “The kids dedicated themselves. They got their bodies stronger and improved their ability to move.”

The Cats are back: they stand 8-2 heading into Friday night’s first round Class A playoff game here with Fairland.

“They just reload,” Fairland head coach Jimmy Dushane said. “They don’t do anything different from one year to the next. They learn it in junior high and they are running the same plays in high school.”

While Morrison is a playoff regular, this is just the 15th time total for the Owls.

Their last appearance came in 2007, when they dropped a 57-7 decision at Pocola.

Morrison missed the playoffs in’85 then put together its remarkable run under head coach Dennis Casey that included a 22-13 win over Welch in the 1986 playoffs.

Welch avenged that loss the following year with a 26-13 victory in a final at Pawhuska.

“Last year was a situation where we graduated 13 seniors and kinda started over a little bit with some young kids that weren’t quite ready to be out there yet,” said Bales, in his seventh season. “But they have grown up in a year and matured, and they are playing pretty good football right now.”

Quality players enabled the Wildcats to be competitive immediately as they transitioned into 11-man football in 2008.

That season was a virtual perfect storm — they won the Class A state title but the younger kids didn’t get as much playing time as they would have in the eight-man game.

“There was a lot of experience lost, a lot of maturity lost and leadership lost,” Bales said. “We went through some growing pains, but it’s paid off this year.”

The core of the Wildcats is provided by five seniors: strong tackle/defensive lineman Jordan Hill, wideout/running back/cornerback Jake Walls, fullback/linebacker Michael Hatter, tight end/linebacker David Lovely and strong guard/defensive end Klancy Foote.

“Last year, we started four freshmen all year,” Bales said. “This year, we have the seniors, a solid junior class and a couple of sophomores who play for us. We kinda like our mixture.”

Depth hasn’t been much of a problem. Morrison has only 22 players on its roster, so nine players go both ways.

“We’re very small,” Bales said. “We could be playing eight-man again … we would have been about ninth from the top. Our numbers are down right now at the high school. About every boy that needs to be out here is out here.”

He’s not sure if the school will drop back down with the next realignment for 2012-13.

“We will be small for several years before we start getting some larger classes,” Bales said. “We will have to wait and see.”

Fairland enters the game with a 5-4 record. The Owls finished third in District A-8 at 3-2.

They’re averaging 306.2 yards in total offense. It’s pretty evenly split — 158.8 rushing and 146.3 passing.

“If we can keep from having turnovers, we will be OK,” Dushane said. “But if we give them a short field, it will be a long night.”

“Fairland has good mixture of things they do,” Bales said. “They run the option well, and they have a nice quarterback (Jon Henry). No. 23 runs the football extremely well. On the flip side of that, they have great size at wide receiver in 22 (Jesse Drosche) and 2 (Jordan Alexander). They are playmaker kids. I like 51 (two-way lineman Chas Wood). They are definitely a team that can do different things.”

Does the size of Drosche (6-4) and Alexander (6-1) pose a problem for the Cats defensively?

“Our defensive backs are pretty small and our two safeties are pretty small, so you have to rearrange and plan for it a little, give them some different looks,” Bales said. “We need to give them some double coverage at times. The key to that is when you do that stuff, your front six or front seven be able to stop the run game and not need that secondary support.”

“We hope we can exploit them there,” Dushane said. “Others I have talked to say there are susceptible to the passing game.”

This will be the second time this season that Dushane will be butting heads with someone he’d faced during his eight-man days at South Coffeyville and Morrison.

“It will be a lot of fun,” Bales said. “I’ve coached against him and with him in all-star games. It will be a good time.”

Earlier this season, the Owls faced Porter, which is in its first season as an 11-man school. The Pirates of Ron Coppedge are facing top-ranked Woodland in another first-round game on Friday.