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McAlester goes bold as Buffaloes return to 5A championship game seeking gold

Despite absence of injured standout, other players come through for Buffs in semifinal win

By Christian Potts

JENKS - Erik McCarty hugged Blaze Baugh and spoke with passion. 

"One more. Go get one more."

Minutes earlier, their McAlester Buffaloes had clinched a trip back to the Class 5A state championship game for a second straight year. They did so by scoring a 39-29 victory against Oklahoma City Bishop McGuinness in the semifinals Saturday night.

Now, the Buffaloes will face Midwest City Carl Albert, a 56-21 winner against Grove in the other 5A semifinal.

McCarty, a University of Oklahoma commit, has made big play after big play throughout his McAlester career. But he now is relegated to encourager after a season-ending knee injury in last week's second-round win against Piedmont.

But McAlester showed it had plenty of weapons, and a coaching staff ready to pull out the full arsenal from the playbook. The Buffaloes ran a fake punt, tried two onside kicks, a flea-flicker, and a jump pass they hadn't used all season, part of an aggressive game plan that largely worked.

"They (the coaches) believe in us, they boost our confidence, they believe that we're going out there and can do it, and we're going to put our hearts into it," said Caden Lesnau, the Buffaloes' senior quarterback.

After McGuinness had jumped out to a 15-0 lead in the first 10 minutes on a pair of touchdown runs by Mike Taffe, McAlester pretty much controlled the rest of the game.

Baugh got it started with a bruising 52-yard touchdown run, powering through multiple would-be tacklers on the way, to make it 15-7. McGuinness answered, though, with a 27-yard scoring run from JP Spanier to make it 22-7 early in the second.

That's when the Buffaloes started digging into their bag of tricks. Facing fourth-and-goal from the McGuinness 14 late in the first half, Trenton Greer booted a 31-yard field goal, but the Buffs had called time out just before the snap.

They then sent in their normal short-yardage package, with sophomore Brayden Bumphus subbed in at quarterback. It's a formation McAlester hadn't thrown a pass out of all season.

Only this time they did, and Bumphus was on the mark to Malachi Wrice for the touchdown. A successful two-point play made it 22-15.

"This week was the first time we tried it, and we practiced it all week, and I couldn't get the pass down," Bumphus said. "But we called it, so I knew what I had to get done.

"I can't even describe how I felt when we called it and it worked."

McAlester got the ball back quickly on a fumble recovery, but stalled near midfield. Again they surprised the Irish, this time with a fake punt, as Lesnau found Owen Russell for a 22-yard pass completion on fourth-and-19.

On the next play, Lesnau scampered 23 yards for a touchdown.

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Tie game, 22-22, headed to halftime. Game on.

Then the second half was more of the same. Greer capped the first series of the half with a 26-yard field goal that counted.

Then the Buffs got a three-and-out and took advantage of an Irish miscue on a punt to get a short field, with Baugh cashing in from 23 yards to make it 32-22 with four minutes left in the third.

But again McAlester went for surprise, following that up with an onside kick that Drayton Pouncil recovered. It was yet another chance to keep the McGuinness offense off the field and out of rhythm.

However, the Irish wouldn't quit. Quarterback River Warren led a nice drive near the end of the quarter, with his 41-yard strike to Noah Rice setting up a 1-yard score by Taffe to make it 32-29.

The Buffs were able to grind out much of the fourth quarter on a six-minute drive. They didn't score, but stopped a McGuinness threat when Bumphus intercepted Warren with 2:10 to go.

Then 59 seconds later, Baugh added an insurance touchdown that put things officially away.

Baugh wasn't part of last year's state runner-up run for McAlester. He was at Talihina then, but transferred to McAlester when the Tigers didn't field a football program this year.

And he was up to the challenge of filling a large part of McCarty's big role on this night, carrying 24 times for 258 yards and three touchdowns, part of a massive rushing night for Big Mac, which gained 434 yards as a team on 51 carries.

"I just know I can do this," Baugh said of the extra workload. "We just never quit, we've been down before and we knew we could come back and do it."

For the players that were part of last year's run, the motivation of bouncing back from that defeat to Collinsville for the 5A title has been apparent.

"We've been talking about this moment since spring ball," Lesnau said. "Our main goal is to win a gold ball. We struggled a little bit, we lost to Sapulpa, and everybody just thought we were going to roll over.

"And we love the haters, honestly. They motivate us to just do what we do, and that's what we did (Saturday). It just lights a fire, knowing what happened to us last year. And I think we'll go in and battle and give whatever we've got."

McGuinness, which finished the season 10-2, was led by Taffe, who rushed for 91 yards and three touchdowns in his last high school game. It's a bitter loss for the Irish a week after eliminating then-unbeaten Coweta, which finished first place in District 5A-3, where McAlester finished third.

But the Irish ultimately had to watch the Buffaloes celebrate victory in the end. And in the middle of that celebration was McCarty, supported by crutches and surrounded by a huddle of his teammates after the game, part of a group that proved they're much more than a one-man team.

"I'm proud of you guys," McCarty said before echoing what he had said earlier to Baugh.

"Now let's go get one more."