Brandon Rice didn’t play football last season for the Liberty Tigers.

That would have been too painful after what he went through as a sophomore.

“We didn’t have a very good team that year,” said Rice, now a senior. “There was just not a lot of communication and the team didn’t get along very well.”

Football isn’t much fun when a guy can’t relate to his teammates and the losses start piling up. Losses have been piling up for some time in this rural school district in south Tulsa County.

Liberty hasn’t won a football game since Rice was in the eighth grade. After a third consecutive 0-10 record last year, the losing streak is at 36.

But Rice is back in uniform for his final season, and brighter days might lie ahead.

“I realized that I actually loved playing football and I was gonna give it another try,” he said. “We’re doing better than my sophomore year. Overall, it’s way better in every way.”

Participation is double what it was last season, and the Tigers have had their chances in both of their 2019 losses. That’s a step in the right direction from last year when every game was decided by the end of the first quarter.

Head coach Gerald Hammond has seen the signs and is certain the Tigers will break through, regardless of whether that means Friday when they visit Caney Valley, also winless through two games in 2019.

“It will happen. We’re much improved and our kids are playing tough,” Hammond said. “I’ve been a part of successful programs (at Chandler and Oologah) and I know what winning looks like. We’re looking to get that first one and go from there.”

Not everybody is convinced, said junior quarterback Stetson Still, a 6-foot-3 starter on Liberty’s 15-8 Class 2A basketball team last winter.

If the Tigers win a game, Still said, “people would go into shock, for sure. They’d probably give us a couple days off from school and have a big parade.”

Athletic director Tom Ballenger said the 2018 season was probably “the most dismal I’ve seen in 35 years of athletics. We had about 14 players and not a lot of talent. In one game, we only had one sub on the sideline.”

The Tigers scored 28 points all season and were shut out eight times. In most games, they trailed by 40 or 50 points by the end of the first quarter.

The contrast in 2019 is like night and day. Liberty trailed Porter by six points with under a minute left in the season opener before losing 36-22. At Savanna last week, they trailed 7-0 in the third quarter before the Bulldogs pulled away to win 22-0.

“I thought we’d close out those games, but we shot ourselves in the foot and made too many mistakes,” Hammond said. “We’re getting better and we need to learn how to win. We haven’t done that for so long around here, but it’s really close.”

Hammond is encouraged by the growth in participation numbers. Boom-and-bust athletic cycles and the fluctuating enrollment that causes them are a way of life in small schools like Liberty. But for one reason or another, the district seems to be growing.

Rice is one of only three seniors on the football team and one of 29 in his graduating class. Next year’s graduating class will have 46. The Tigers started the year with 30 players, and while injuries have sidelined five or six of them, all but one are expected to return.

Part of the influx is from a strong freshman group that was undefeated in junior high football. Another is from transfers who may not be able to play at the varsity level in larger districts, but who thrive athletically, and socially, in Liberty’s relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

“If you’re here very long, you’re gonna know everybody by name,” Hammond said.

Hammond is in his 15th year with the district — he teaches U.S., World and Oklahoma history — and is almost a Liberty lifer.

He grew up in the district while his father, the late Jerry Hammond, coached Tigers football in 1977-85, and later graduated from nearby Mounds after his father moved there to become head coach.

Hammond coached the Tigers in 2006-10 before taking a break to seek his master’s degree in education. He was available in the spring of 2018 when another coach resigned.

“We had gone through five or six head coaches and nobody stayed more than a year or two,” Hammond said. “I knew the kids and I knew what they were going through, always getting their hearts broken. Now we need to win. People say losing builds character, but I told our guys we’ve built enough of that. Let’s work on something else now.”

Mike Brown