Coaching football at Ada High School has, for decades, been one of Oklahoma’s best — and most high-profile — sports jobs.

Walking in the rather large footsteps of such giants as Elvan George and Craig McBroom, any Cougar head coach has a job that carries with it a lot of prestige and, coincidentally, a lot of pressure. Winning has become such a habit at Ada that current coach Steve Dean was in middle school and none of his players were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes the last time the school had a losing football season more than two decades ago.

Dean, who in about 10 weeks will begin his fourth autumn as the Cougars’ head man, has put together a solid three-year resume’, winning district titles his first two years and reaching the state quarterfinals last season as Ada moved back up to Class 5A after spending his first two seasons in 4A. His 2004 club suffered the loss of one of its most popular players, junior tackle Cody Bolin, in an automobile accident just two days before a double-overtime playoff win over Glenpool that was one of the most emotional in school history, and the Cougars had winning campaigns in 2005 and 2006 despite staggering graduation losses.

Last year’s team, outsized by virtually every opponent, refused to quit despite a blowout early-season loss to eventual state champion Carl Albert and injuries that decimated the linebacking corps and forced Dean to play musical tailbacks right up until the time Lawton MacArthur — the eventual state runner-up — ended the Cougars’ season on a touchdown pass with 14 seconds left to complete an improbable 21-17 comeback win.

But the obstacles thrown the Cougars’ path over the past three seasons might have simply been the football gods’ way of preparing Dean and his team for 2007.

Sure, Carl Albert is loaded again and the obvious favorite in 5A off a school year that saw the Titans score an unprecedented state championship sweep in football (their seventh title in 10 years), basketball and baseball; Tulsa East Central, the 2005 Class 5A champ, appears talented enough to challenge for its second crown in three years; Guthrie (winner of the 2002 title) and Lawton Mac also look like contenders; and Shawnee — which missed the playoffs despite beating Ada on a last-season touchdown pass late last season — will have controversial quarterback Tucker Brown back for a fifth (and, hopefully, final) varsity season granted him by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association earlier this spring.

At this point, though, Dean probably wouldn’t trade places with the coaches at any of his major rivals for the 5A title this fall. Just four days removed from the six-day, two-a-day grind of another Camp Paradise, Ada’s young coach realizes that he’s sitting on a powder keg. He just has to set the timer so the Cougars explode at the right time.

“I would think, off the way things finished last year, Carl Albert and East Central will be 1-2 (in preseason polls), and 3-4-5 will be a mix between us, Guthrie and Lawton MacArthur,” Dean said earlier this month.

When the 2007 campaign kicks off at home against Ardmore on Aug. 31, Dean will send out his most veteran squad since the Kerry Johnson-led team reached the quarterfinals in 2004. The Cougars have 21 seniors on their current roster, and, because of the injuries last season, a number of underclassmen got unexpected playing time (Dean started 10 underclassmen in the loss to Lawton Mac) and will begin this fall as proven veterans.

And, not only are the 2007 Cougars as experienced at almost every position as at any time in Dean’s brief tenure, but this group might also be as quick and athletic overall as any squad in Ada’s long, proud football history.

Dean can line up 5A’s fastest man, senior Chaz Daniels, at tailback (where he started the last five games of 2006 and became one of the state’s most exciting running backs) or at wide receiver (where he started the season with a long touchdown grab against Ardmore); he has another senior, Michael Roberts — like Daniels, one of the state’s best all-around athletes and nearly as fast — as a three-year starter at quarterback; and he has one of the state’s most versatile players on both sides of the ball in senior Willy Gould.

Daniels and Roberts give the Cougars a pair of home run threats on virtually every play, and Gould — one of the state’s most physical tailbacks — survived the plague of injuries last fall to become the leader of the defense and the poster boy for the hard-hitting, aggressive style of play that has been the trademark of Dean’s teams.

Daniels, Roberts and Gould are, along with wideouts Steffan Jones and Colton Richardson, part of an exciting group of skill players and form the nucleus of a team with a dream for 2007 — a dream, that, with a little luck, could become a reality and Ada’s long-awaited 20th state title.

Although Dean has to replace key players at several positions, including tight end and fullback, he has experience and depth almost everywhere else on the field. In addition to Daniels and Gould at tailback, he can throw a couple of his team’s emotional leaders — senior Josh Hopstein and junior Keeslar Stover — at opposing defenses, and, like Gould, both are outstanding defensive players as well.

On average, Ada’s offensive and defensive linemen weighed less than the backfields of some of the Cougars’ opponents last season, and, relatively speaking, Dean’s club won’t be big up front again this year — especially compared to the Craig and Chad Roark-led units of 2004 and 2005. But senior Colten Thornten is an all-state candidate at tackle, and Dean’s speed-oriented 3-5 defense — which will start 2007 much deeper and healthier than it ended 2006 — plays to his team’s biggest strength and gives the Cougars a chance to compete with anybody.

“Just by natural maturity, you have seniors who didn’t get to play as sophomores or were just spot players as juniors, and they’re thrown into the mix, too,” Dean said. “We’ve got competition at a lot of positions.

“We’ll set a depth chart coming out of Camp Paradise,” he added, “but there will be some positions where you set a depth chart and the first line will be filled with two names because two guys are pretty even.”

And, despite his team’s overall experience, Dean also has some younger players who could be ready to compete for playing time this fall. Sophomore-to-be Preston Dye was impressive this spring and looks like one of the best of an promising group of underclassmen.

“He definitely opened some eyes during spring ball,” Dean said of Dye, a solid all-around athlete who is the shortstop on the Cougar baseball team this summer. “Honestly, you don’t want to have to throw a sophomore into the fire,” Dean said. “Last year, we were forced to do that. I think the good ones just kind of surface. They’ll rear their head above the others. The ones who pick up the system fast or are exceptional athletes and put themselves in a position to play.”

One thing Dean won’t lack this season is exceptional athletes. Another thing he’ll have plenty of, unfortunately, is pressure to win with a team whose time has come.

But, like every Ada football coach before him, Dean knows that’s just something that comes with the job.

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