It may not be the official team slogan or printed on a team t-shirt, but it’s safe to say the key word for the McAlester football team this season is “Finish.”
The Buffs, the sixth-ranked team in Class 5A, lost only two games in the regular season and they led both of those games going into the fourth quarter.
The team had a chance to prove they’d learned something from those previous setbacks last week when they found themselves behind 28-7 at halftime against El Reno in the 5A quarterfinals.
Second-year head coach Forrest Mazey didn’t have to rip into his team at halftime to get them back on track. He simply reminded them what was at stake.
“We talk about it all the time,” stated Mazey. “We want to win a state championship. I told them, you lose this game, you’re out of it. How bad do you really want it? How bad do you want to compete? How bad do you want a chance to play for the gold ball? It’s all you really have to tell this group.”
Obviously, the Buffs wanted it bad because they were a different team in the second half. Sophomore running back Erik McCarty scored five touchdowns after intermission en route to a wild, 43-41 win in overtime.
“He told us don’t quit,” recalled McCarty, who has rushed for just over 1,700 yards this season. “Til that final buzzer rings, you don’t quit. I think we realized what was on the line and realized that’s our season if we don’t go out there and get the W. Keep going til the final buzzer and we did and we came out on top.”
“I realized he only had four or five touches the whole first half, which is a travesty on my part,” admitted Mazey. “Obviously, we had to get him some more touches. He was a big workhorse in the second half.”
“We knew that we could still pull it out,” claimed the 6-3, 175-pound McCarty. “We believed in each other. We believed every guy was going to do their job and we were going to get done what we needed to get done.”
McAlester capped off its amazing comeback with a huge 41-yard, fourth-down conversion pass with 19 seconds left that put the ball on the El Reno 1-yard line. McCarty scored on the next play as time expired and the Buffs converted the two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.
“In the fourth quarter, when we found out that we could do what we had to do we said, let’s go win this game,” said McCarty, who scored the winning touchdown in overtime. “I don’t think anything could hold us back. I don’t think we were looking back once we went into that overtime.”
It’s rare for a sophomore to have that much confidence in his teammates. Mazey believes once he realizes how good McCarty can be, the sky is the limit for him and the Buffs.
“He’s awfully young,” said Mazey, “but when he gets going, he’s really, really good. Sometimes I think he lacks that self-confidence that he’s that good. He does a good job and sees his blocks and he’s hard to bring down. He’s definitely a next-level guy. He’s a quality athlete and a quality young man.”
“Ya, I’d say that’s right,” admitted McCarty on his occasional lack of self-confidence. “Whenever I miss a tackle or I don’t make the right cut, I dwell on it too much. It’s something that I’ve been trying to work on. I’ve gotten better this year. It’s just a mental thing I’ve got to fix and I’m growing out of.”
McCarty has also come up big for the Buffs on defense. He’s recorded two pick-six interceptions this season, including one last week in their quarterfinal win over Pryor.
“It’s just wherever they need me, pretty much,” said McCarty. “If they stick me on offense and say go get this first down, I’ll go do it. If they put me on defense and say go make this tackle, I’m going to make the tackle.”
The Buffs, who last won a state title in 1988, have completed their quarterfinal victory celebration and now they’re focused on this week’s semifinal showdown with Bishop McGuinness.
“Obviously, we’ve got to start better,” said Mazey. We can’t have those hiccups and those mistakes. We just need better execution, better fire.”
“We can play a lot better than we played last week,” said McCarty matter-of-factly. “I think we’ll come out and show that we’re back. We’ll show that was just a hiccup.”