Oklahoma high school football: Choctaw embracing journey back in state championship game for first time in 60 years
CHOCTAW — Doug Martindale remembers his team’s journey to a state championship as if it was yesterday.
Thing is, it was 60 years ago.
Choctaw's co-captain back in 1960 remembers the team losing its season opener to Casady, then winning 12 straight to make the state title game. He remembers the 32-degree weather on the day of the Class B state championship game. The team taking the field at Skelly Stadium to battle Stigler. The game being scoreless at the end of the first quarter, then Choctaw scoring three times to take control before halftime and eventually winning 32-6 for its first football title.
Martindale, now 77, hopes this season’s Choctaw team can make memories similar to his, ones that travel flawlessly through time, untouched by every passing day.
“I thought it was great when I found out they were going into the state finals,” Martindale said. “It has been way too long for that to happen.”
This season, the Yellowjackets season will have its final chapter at Central Oklahoma’s Wantland Stadium in Edmond. Choctaw faces top-ranked Bixby at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Class 6A-II state championship game.
Those who were part of that 1960 championship team are pulling for a Choctaw victory just as much as family and friends of current players. The community of Choctaw is amped up, with outpourings of support on social media, take state signs scattered throughout town and painted car windows with encouraging messages, for a chance to take out the Bixby dynasty.
In a tumultuous season during the pandemic, Choctaw has also dealt with injuries and even death.
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“We’re just thankful to be in this situation,” Choctaw coach Jake Corbin said. “But there’s still work to be done.”
When Corbin took over the program four years ago, he quickly started working to change the culture. He wanted to instill the G.O.L.D. Standard, which stands for gratitude, ownership, leadership and discipline and has become Choctaw’s motto. It can easily be seen on the team’s pants when they take the field.
That change Corbin sought didn’t happen only at the high school level but in middle school, too, where he and his staff quickly got involved. Youngsters in Choctaw started becoming more eager to get to the high school and don the blue and gold on Friday nights.
That shows most in the Class of 2023, this year’s sophomores. The face of that class is Steele Wasel. After quarterback Thad Williams graduated last year, the tall, shaggy haired sophomore emerged not only as Choctaw’s quarterback but also as its leader, even with his lack of experience.
It was something that proved pivotal quickly.
Choctaw started the season 1-2, struggling with a nondistrict schedule that pitted it against three Arkansas teams. To make matters worse, the team's best player heading into the season, wide receiver Chase Jackson, suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. On his first catch of the season, the TCU commit was tackled late out of bounds and suffered a fractured patella in his knee.
Because of injuries, COVID quarantines and other situations, Choctaw’s first game with everyone on its two-deep roster available was its semifinal win against Stillwater.
Along with Wasel, other sophomores such running back La’Trell Ray and tight end RJ Jackson, who missed most of the season but returned in the quarterfinals, have proven indispensable.
“It’s crazy to think two years ago we were playing middle school ball and now we’re playing for a state championship,” Wasel said.
In addition to the young roster, injuries and COVID, some players and coaches have dealt with the worst kind of tragedy.
Numerous members of Choctaw’s football programs have lost family members and friends this season for various reasons, leading to absences from practices, film sessions and even some games. The tragedies have helped bring the team together, even in the darkest times.
Because of what the team has endured and how it has grown, Choctaw believes it is better equipped to face Bixby. The teams met in district play with Bixby winning 24-13, but that's the fewest points the Spartans have scored since 2018.
Choctaw has a defense that could give Bixby even more fits in the title game.
With junior Desean Brown and senior Donnie Wingate leading the front seven and defensive back Jordan Mukes, an OU commit, locking down opposing receivers, Choctaw’s defense has helped provide balance with its strong offense all season.
And it happens to be peaking at the right time.
“We know what we have to do,” Mukes said. “We want to enjoy this one last game together, but we have to keep doing what we have been doing to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Yellowjackets have a chance, too. Beating Bixby would end the Spartans’ 35-game win streak and prevent them from winning their third title in a row and sixth in seven seasons.
Choctaw has conquered every obstacle that has been in its way to this point. The young team that wasn’t supposed to contend until the next couple years is vying for a state title.
Martindale and other members of the 1960 team hope this year's bunch seizes the opportunity in front of it. Getting to the state finals is to be celebrated, but winning a gold ball? That would make memories for a lifetime.
“This is a team that we’ve been waiting for for 60 years,” Martindale said. “I’m absolutely thrilled and I hope they win because I don’t like being the only one who has a state championship at Choctaw.”
Cameron Jourdan covers high school sports across the Oklahoma City metro and state. Have a story idea for Cameron? He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Cam_Jourdan. Support Cameron’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at oklahoman.com/subscribe or by using the link at the top of this page.