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Wagoner Bulldogs are `Back to Business’ after `surreal’ championship

Editor’s note: Spring football practice started for most state high schools last week. World writers Barry Lewis and Bill Haisten will visit selected area schools looking ahead to the 2023 season. This is the fourth in a series of reports from those visits. Thursday’s will be on Collinsville.

WAGONER — During the second week of spring football practice, Wagoner quarterback Kale Charboneau and receiver Witt Edwards already look ready to pick up where they left off nearly six months ago in the Class 4A championship game.

On Monday afternoon, Charboneau launched a 50-yard bomb to Edwards, who effortlessly made the catch and coasted into the end zone. And then they did it again — and again.

A year ago during spring practice and early in the season, offensive success didn’t come as easily for the Bulldogs as Charboneau was a sophomore in his first year as the starting quarterback.

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“I feel way better about my reads, there’s a lot less pressure,” said Charboneau, who accounted for 2,691 yards and 29 TDs in 2022. “The game is so much slower this year than it was for me last year in the spring.

“Offense didn’t get rolling until the end.”

There were some growing pains during an 11-3 season as the Bulldogs lost two of their first three games after leading going into the final moments. Wagoner’s offense was not in high gear at that time.

“One of our best assets right now is our offense is clicking so early,” Edwards said. “Last year we had the athletes but we didn’t have the team at the beginning. We just had to learn playing the game. The first couple weeks were a little rocky but we learned it’s not just a solo game, it’s a team game. And in the championship it was a team game and we did what we needed to do. This year, we’re going to start off doing that in Week 1.”

Charboneau led a five-minute drive that ended with a winning field goal as time expired in Wagoner’s 24-21 victory over Cushing in the title game. But a pivotal play happened with one second left in the first half when Charboneau and Edwards connected on a TD pass to start the Bulldogs’ comeback from a 21-7 deficit.

It was the catch of the year for Edwards, who had 38 receptions for 372 yards and five TDs. That play also was reminiscent of big receiving plays made by Nikia Jones during Wagoner’s 48-game winning streak from 2014-17.

“Both are really tall rangy athetes,” Wagoner coach Dale Condict said. “Witt is probably the most rangy athlete we’ve had. He’s every bit of 6-6, with 10 1/2-inch hands. He’s got all the measurables you would want from a college player that’s high top end with speed on the field. This spring he’s really made a decision to make himself better.

“I wondered last year if we had a guy who would make a big play in a moment in the championship game and right before halftime we threw the jump ball to Witt and he made a great catch in the corner. In that moment, a lot of times you’ve got to have a guy make that play in a playoff run. And a lot like Kale, he’s shown he’s dramatically improved from the fall until now.”

And that play also has been a springboard for Edwards’ rising college recruiting stock. He’s the state’s No. 2 overall recruit in this year’s senior class as ranked by 247 Sports. Although he’s listed as a tight end, he’s also been recruited as a receiver, defensive back and athlete.

Another Wagoner player receiving a lot of attention from college recruiters is junior defensive end/tight end Alex Shieldnight, who had 12 sacks for the Bulldogs last season. Shieldnight has offers from Oklahoma, OSU, Tulsa, Tennessee, Kansas State, Texas Tech and several other major colleges.

Other returnees to watch include receiver/cornerback Matson Swanson, linebackers Keyton Cole, Gavin Miller and Bryce Steele, and lineman Dax Griffin.

Condict and his players admit they still think a lot about last year’s title game and they have watched the video numerous times.

“To say it’s a once-in-a lifetime experience would be an understatement,” Condict said. “We talk about it a lot.”

Edwards describes winning the championship as “surreal.”

“We haven’t always been the kids that were going to be the biggest group or be the dominant group,” Edwards said. “It wasn’t always `you’re all going to win,’ it was `are you going to win it?’ It was a question. And once you go prove them wrong, at the moment we won the state championship there was no better feeling in the world.”

Charboneau added, “I think it felt even better because we got beat (earlier) by Cushing 42-0.”

Even for a tradition-rich program that has six state titles in the past 12 years, winning a gold ball by avenging a 42-point loss two months earlier to Cushing is a big confidence boost going into 2023.

“We know we’re going to have (big) games like that this year and know we can get it done,” Shieldnight said.

The championship also has provided extra energy around the program and in the community this spring.

“There’s definitely a difference,” Condict said. “There’s always excitement about football in Wagoner, but there’s a lot of excitement among our coaches and players right now. We feel great about where we’re at right now.”

Edwards refers to the title game as a “cool” memory, but also is looking ahead to the upcoming season. For the Bulldogs their motto is “BTB — Back to Business.”

“We honestly lost some good players, but we’ve gained even better ones,” Edwards said.

“And I think we’re going to go into it not with the mindset that we’re better than everybody but with the mindset we know what we can do and we know we have the assets to do it. I feel like it’s set up for us to go 14-0.”

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