The East Central University football team experienced the longest offseasons in school history last year.

Thanks, COVID-19.

The Tigers were about to get busy with spring football when the pandemic forced the entire state of Oklahoma, including athletics, to shut down lat March.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve done our spring ball mainly in the month of April. So of course, we missed all of spring ball,” said ECU head football coach Al Johnson, revisiting the beginning of stranger things to come. “I wish we had done spring ball in February, but who knew all of this was coming.”

The Tigers started summer workouts in July, but as COVID-19 cases began to increase, they were forced to stop and wait.

“We had our summer program with COVID protocols a year ago. But as we got into July, the NCAA put an end to that,” Johnson said.

Then, Johnson and his fellow coaches and players hope to play games in the fall, even if they couldn’t play the entire 11-game schedule.

That didn’t happen either.

Eventually, the entire 2020 fall season was scrapped due to COVID-19 concerns.

“All we did in the fall of 2020 was work out. By the time we got into October, we had state supplies for testing and were able to test our guys on a regular basis. We were able to have roughly 12 practices in the fall through November,” Johnson said.

Late in the year, the Great American Conference started preparing for an abbreviated spring season. All Johnson and his team could do was, again, hope for the best.

“We remained hopeful we were going to be able to have a spring season. What it was going to look like was really up in the air for a while,” Johnson explained. “We had a conference meeting and they voted to only have two scrimmages. I was pushing for five.”

Then, the GAC presidents stepped in and the spring season did a 360.

“We thought that was going to be a done deal, but the presidents basically nixed it all and said each school could do what they wanted (in the spring),” he said. “We were then able to go out and try to schedule five contests here at East Central.”

COVID-19 case numbers still weren’t great in the spring and Johnson knew it would take a ton of luck to be able to play five times over the course of the spring.

“I knew the chances were that if we scheduled five, we probably wouldn’t get to play all five. Unfortunately, I was correct,” he said.

The Tigers’ first scrimmage was in early March at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. It was the first time the Tigers had suited up to play another opponent in over a year.

And it was against the history Triple Flexbone offense the Bison have executed so well in the past. That type of offense is always hard to prep for, but the Tigers performed surprisingly well for a team that hadn’t played against a real opponent for so long.

“I can’t replicate that in practice. As good as their O-linemen are and as fast as their meshes are, I just couldn’t replicate that,” Johnson said. “We scrimmaged them and looked good. We were excited. The guys were really happy to be playing against someone new.”

Next up for the Tigers was a trip to Bethany to play an actual game against host Southern Nazarene University.

“We didn’t look as good. It’s lessons that you learn growing up. I like to compare our team to what it’s like raising a child. They don’t always like me making that inference, but it’s true. We all have to go through life lessons and teams have to go through life lessons,” he said.

“The Southern Nazarene game was one of those (lessons). We came out of Harding feeling good about ourselves and eight days later we go out and play a real game. There were issues. We didn’t play to our best ability,” Johnson continued.

Johnson said his team had spring break the week after playing the Crimson Storm and some of his players might have begun their vacation too early.

“They all knew it was spring break. They had the whole week off the following week. They were feeling good. They also remember in 2019 when we beat Southern Naz 45-7,” he said. “What they didn’t remember was going into halftime with two minutes to go and it was a seven-point game. They forget all that. They forget that it was a struggle for a quarter and a half.”

The 2020 contest was knotted at 7-7 at halftime. A nearly one-hour rain delay stalled the action early in the third period.

“Luckily we had a rain delay and we were in the locker room for a good 45 minutes to an hour. They used that time to refocus. They came back out and won the game. If you’re not going to play well, at least you win,” Johnson said.

The Tigers prevailed 35-28.

Johnson knew his young but talented team had some growing up to do and after the normal fall season was canceled, spring suddenly became of the utmost importance.

“Coming out of 2019, we were the youngest team in all of Division II. There were lessons that we learned in 2019 that we needed to take the next step in 2020 and we did not get to,” Johnson said. “That’s why I was so adamant that we needed to play in the spring because we still had lessons we had to learn.”

Next up was a trip to Division I Tarleton State. It was a huge mountain for East Central to climb, but the Tigers did just that and pulled off the upset heard around the college football world.

Final score: ECU 21, Tarleton State 14.

There’s more on that historic victory elsewhere in this special section.

The Tigers were scheduled to end the spring with a home game against Lincoln (Missouri) on April 10 inside Koi Ishto Stadium. However, Lincoln called and canceled that contest.

Going into the 2021 season, one of the big keys for ECU is consistency.

“Are we going to show up and be the team that played at Tarleton or are we going to show up and be the team that played at Southern Nazarene?” Johnson said.

“That’s part of growing up. No matter what happened yesterday, you have to show up and be your best the next day,” he continued.

The Tigers are scheduled to kick off the 2021 — COVID-19 permitting — Sept. 4 with another trip to Haring.

“I want our team to know what it’s like to show up and be consistently good – not up and down. That’s where we have to make a big focus. Anybody that follows the GAC and Division II football knows we have no bye week,” Johnson said. “If you wanna compete for a conference championship, you have to play consistently 11 straight weeks with no bye. That’s what we have to get to.”

Johnson couldn’t have been more tickled about his team’s progress throughout summer drills.

“I know this. We’ve had the best summer workouts we’ve ever had. The guys are working hard. They’re motivated. They seem focused on accomplishing more and they’re not satisfied,” he said. “I will say our bar is very high. Will it be high on 11 Saturdays? That’s the real key.”

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Jeff Cali has been covering sports in the Ada area since the mid-90s. He graduated from Byng High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University.

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