NORMAN — “All in.”
That’s how it all started at Norman North. It’s the mantra every T-Wolves’ player screams when they circle up before the fourth quarter of every game, and it’s the attitude that has brought the program to the brink of a state title game in just two seasons.
The reasons for North’s historic rise are myriad. There’s Jordan Evans, the full-time linebacker, full-time kick returner, part-time quarterback and running back, who seldom fails to be the best athlete on the field and never fails to at least play like he is.
There’s Peyton Gavras, the quarterback who missed nearly an entire season with a concussion but returned to the field this year with something to prove.
There’s Channing Meyer, a former transfer student who a year ago stepped into the role of quarterback after Gavras’ injury and led the T-Wolves on a surprising run to the playoffs and now seems to step up wherever the Timberwolves might need him on offense.
There’s Bryan Payne, who, despite his undersized stature, is able to keep defenses guessing as he weaves in and out of tackles.
And there’s dozens of other stories, all combining seamlessly to create the total package that is the 2012 T-Wolves.
Nearly every one of those stories shares a similar origin: They can all be traced back to the arrival of their new head coach.
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Wade Standley was hired at North on March 8, 2011. The former Tulsa Union assistant was coming off a head coaching stint in Kansas, and he was ready to move back to Oklahoma.
At North, he inherited a team that had won the district title in 2007 but since had fallen off, bottoming out with a 3-7 performance in 2010. When coach Lance Manning left to take over at Edmond Santa Fe, North administrators felt they had found the right man in Standley to rebuild the program.
Standley exudes intensity, from the way he conducts practice to the way he engages with his team. It’s an approach that immediately injected new life into a once-proud program.
Beneath the passion in the locker room and on the field, there’s an unmistaken mindset of inclusiveness. Standley calls everyone he meets “brother,” and he makes the notion of the football team being a “family” more than just a cliché. It’s an attitude that permeates the North program, and one the Timberwolves take seriously.
With any successful program, the culture change came before the winning. Standley points to an early meeting with team leaders Beau Proctor and Jaxon Uhles as the moment that changed everything.
“From the first day they bought in,” Standley said. “I met with those guys and they said ‘this is the way it’s going to be.’ That started everything we’ve done here.”
With Proctor and Uhles setting the tone for the rest of the squad, North embarked on a difficult offseason of hard work, from workouts in the weight room and the field to learning Standley’s entirely new system.
With a renewed sense of zeal, the paradigm around the program began to shift for the Timberwolves. In an extraordinary short amount of time, the culture in the locker room had changed.
Then came the winning.
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In Standley’s first game at the helm, North met with Norman High for the Crosstown Clash, a contest that had previously defined entire seasons for the winner. Behind Arkansas commit Donovan Roberts, and a timely trick play, the seventh-ranked Tigers came away with a 28-21 win.
But NHS wasn’t the only team that had a victory on that night. The narrow defeat proved to the T-Wolves that they could compete with anyone in the state, and Standley knew better than anyone how important that was.
“I knew this game was going to be a gauge of where we are,” he said after the game. “And I liked what we did tonight.”
The Timberwolves only improved from there. Despite losing Gavras for the better part of the season, they went on a four-game winning streak in district play to make it back to the playoffs, far ahead of everyone’s schedule but their own.
Flash forward a year. North entered this season with all 11 starters back on defense, and every playmaker returned for the offense. Expectations on the team were high, but none were higher than those put on the T-Wolves by themselves.
Claiming all year that the goal was to “win in the playoffs,” Standley pushed his team to improve every week. An impressive preseason, half-game victory over Edmond Santa Fe showed the Timberwolves how good they could be, and a contest against another power from Edmond seven weeks later sealed the deal.
That victory, a dominating 49-27 triumph over No. 3 Edmond North in Week 7, was an important physiological win.
“Before that game they knew what they wanted to do,” Standley said. “But after that, they realized this isn’t just something we’re hoping for; it’s something we’re going to get done.”
Confidence continued to build from there, and the Timberwolves went on to clinch the district title and finish the regular season 9-1, with the only blemish on their record coming in a non-district contest against Westmoore early in the year. That put the Timberwolves in position to host the first two rounds of the playoffs, and brought the excitement level in the program and the school to unprecedented heights.
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North drew arguably the toughest 1-4 matchup in the state in the first round of the playoffs, with Southmoore coming to town. The SaberCats were just a few possessions away from finishing as high as second in District 6A-4, but had fallen in the standings late in the season.
Southmoore brought one of the state’s most explosive offenses to the field, and the SaberCats slowed Gavras’ usually-prolific passing attack to a crawl. But, like they’ve done all year, other T-Wolves stepped up for North, and they found a way to move the ball on the ground, grinding out the clock, and the Southmoore defense, en route to a 21-6 victory.
That set up last week’s quarterfinal against Broken Arrow, the largest high school in the state. Again, the Timberwolves found ways to make plays. Evans returned a punt for a touchdown, and the defense slowed the Tigers enough for North to pull out a 24-16 upset win and push North into its first-ever semifinals appearance.
“No one thought we could beat an East team,” Evans said. “But we did. We have the confidence that we’re going to win every time we step on the field.”
As the wins have piled up, so too has excitement around the school hallways. Officials have organized transportation for more than 500 students to Friday’s 7:30 p.m. clash against Owasso at Tulsa Union, the first time in school history for such an endeavor.
And the Timberwolves don’t intend on letting their fans, or themselves, down.
“We’ve made history this year, and it’s been pretty special to take part in these games,” Gavras said. “We’re not ready for it to end.”
Corbin HoslerFollow me @Chosler88chosler@normantranscript.com