GROVE- After missing the postseason in 2009, the Grove Ridgerunners are back where they belong.
In their first season in Class 5A, the Ridgerunners disproved the skeptics, going 7-3 and finishing third in a tightly-contested district to make a return appearance in the playoffs.
Their reward is a three-hour bus ride to McAlester to take on the seventh-ranked Buffaloes. McAlester had been ranked as high as fourth in the state by the Associated Press before a 49-18 drubbing at the hands of the Tulsa Washington Hornets cost the Buffaloes an undefeated regular season and a district title.
Led by quarterback Tony Kiefer, the Buffaloes, who advanced to the quarterfinals in last year’s playoffs before falling to El Reno, are averaging nearly 39 points per game. Kiefer has 2,428 yards passing on the season, and is also the team’s leading rushing with 918 yards.
The junior quarterback has found plenty of big plays with a trio of junior wide receivers. Adam Boyd leads the group with 48 catches for 866 yards, while Alverey Braxton has 27 catches for 566 yards. Cody Lefors has chipped in another 21 receptions for 337 yards. All of them are averaging at least 18 yards per catch.
The Ridgerunners will counter the Buffaloes’ aerial fireworks with their own brand of hard-nosed football, led by senior running back Buck Maples. Maples crossed the 1,000 yard mark in last week’s 41-13 win over Tahlequah with 135 yards in the first half to go along with five touchdowns. Maples now has 15 touchdowns on the season, putting him third in Class 5A in scoring.
Defensively the Ridgerunners would look to have a distinct advantage against a McAlester defensive unit that is allowing an average of 22 points per game. Led by leading tacklers Dakota Mize (91 tackles) and Gannon Beck (82 tackles), the Buffaloes have been especially porous of late, allowing 107 points over their final three games against Tulsa Rogers, Tulsa Hale and Tulsa Washington.
The Ridgerunners are allowing 17 points per game defensively and regrouped after being torched by East Central and quarterback John McDavid for 485 total yards and 38 points in week nine by holding Tahlequah to 162 yards and 13 points in the regular season finale. Led by linebackers Trent Phillips (115 tackles) and Bobby Harris (129 tackles), the Ridgerunners will look to follow the Hornets’ game plan of shutting down Kiefer in the running game and making McAlester one-dimensional. Tulsa Washington held Kiefer to just 50 yards on 21 carries in last week’s win.
A deciding factor in Friday’s game could come down to special teams. In his role as punter, Harris is averaging over 37 yards per kick, while three McAlester kickers have combined to average 34 yards per boot. But the Buffaloes will counter with a dangerous return game. Braxton is averaging 22.8 yards per punt return and has two scores on the season.