POTEAU — On one Friday night in early November, the Poteau Pirates nearly became the talk of Oklahoma.
In the opening round of the 2017 4A playoffs, the Pirates had three-time defending 4A champion Wagoner on the ropes. Poteau was also very close to breaking Wagoner's state-record 47-game winning streak.
But it wasn't meant to be, as Wagoner pulled out a 35-28 win in overtime, making it 48 straight for the Bulldogs.
And as it turned out, the following week, it was Blanchard which shocked the state by ending that long Wagoner winning streak in the 4A quarterfinals.
For the Pirates, meanwhile, the initial disappointment over falling short soon turned into resolve once they began their off-season workouts.
"Just being that close to beating a team that was really, really good, I feel like that just gives me some motivation," senior defensive end Gunnar Thompson said. "That just says that we can do it, we've just got to play as a team and if we do that, then I think it's our year."
It very well could be the year for the Pirates, who kick off the 2018 campaign at home this Friday with a Zero Week game against El Reno. In fact, the website OKPreps.com picked Poteau to win the 4A title.
Poteau has definitely been knocking on the door of 4A supremacy in recent seasons. The Pirates played for a 4A state title in 2013, and also went to the 4A semifinals in 2015, the first season for coach Forrest Mazey.
With seven starters back on both sides of the ball, including their offensive backfield and defensive standouts like Thompson, Mazey knows he has a team that could grab that elusive big prize at the end, the state title gold ball to be exact.
"I think they're hungry. ... That '15 group was great, a great group," Mazey said. "They (the current Pirates) feel like they should be there, this group does.
"I don't know if the turning point was Wagoner last year and being in that game and having the opportunity to win it, I think they feel like that they belong whereas in other years you think you do but they feel they belong. To me, it's a different feel amongst the team of pushing past that hump that we need to push past to be a state championship caliber team."
Even though on paper the Pirates have the look of a 4A contender, Mazey made sure the team had to put in the work the past several months. One motivational ploy was having the players wear T-shirts with a question mark on it during workouts.
"I think the biggest thing with us with the question mark is you don't know what you're going to be until you make all the workouts, you make a certain percentage of the workouts," Mazey said. "We had a couple of those start the actual preseason practice in their question mark shirts because they hadn't proven themselves to their teammates or their coaching staff yet whether it be a tardiness here or a missed workout there, so they've got to make sure they do their part because we're only as strong as our weakest link."
Seemingly another advantage for the Pirates going into '18 may be a favorable home schedule.
They're on the friendly FieldTurf of Costner Stadium for their first two ballgames, El Reno and Durant. They open up 4A-4 play at home against rival Sallisaw and they're also at home for games against teams which may be their toughest challengers for the district title, Broken Bow and the regular-season finale against Hilldale, now led by Greg Werner, the coach who led Poteau to the 2013 4A championship game.
But, it's still a matter of putting in the time and the effort to live up to that preseason billing.
"It's still a long jaunt, a long haul and you know, you hate talking about preseason because you don't know what's going to happen, so you've got to get out there and bust some heads and go to work," Mazey said.
Should the Pirates do just that, they might very well be the talk of the state come early December.