The past is going to help the Oak Hill Academy and Hebron Christian football teams in the future.
How the first four games of each team”s season will affect their matchup at 7:30 tonight in Pheba remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: Oak Hill Academy (0-4) and Hebron Christian (1-3) will enter tonight”s game with many similarities. Both teams are expected to dress out less than 20 players. Both teams also have experienced their share of growing pains.
But Oak Hill Academy coach Leroy Gregg and Hebron Christian coach Greg Watkins feel the lessons their players have faced in the first four weeks will make them stronger and better prepared to face the ultimate test this season: The fight to earn a playoff spot.
The Raiders, who play in District 2AA in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, have to beat Carroll Academy or Winston Academy to put them in position to advance to the postseason.
The Eagles, who play in District 3A, will have a bye week next week before they will play Central Holmes Christian on Oct. 1. They will play at Immanuel Christian on Oct. 15 and at home against Winona Christian on Oct. 29 to determine if they will get back to playoffs after a one-year absence.
Until then, Gregg and Watkins will continue to play coach, psychologist, and cheerleader — or any role — it takes to keep their players focused, positive, and committed.
“I would put my first four games (Heritage Academy, Pillow Academy, Indianola Academy, and Leake Academy) against anyone in all of private school in our league,” Gregg said. “Three of those teams are undefeated, and Heritage is a couple of plays from being undefeated. We have played a rugged first four ballgames.”
Still, Gregg admits the Raiders haven”t given him the effort he needs in all of those games. He said he was really proud of Oak Hill Academy”s effort in a 28-14 loss to Heritage Academy and in a 31-6 loss against Pillow Academy.
The past two weeks, though, he said he has been disappointed because the Raiders have been in position to make plays and haven”t delivered. He said the team has made too many mental mistakes and, at times, looks like it hasn”t been ready to play.
“After the first two games I would have lost the ranch with the effort thing with my kids as far as them giving the effort to win the ballgame,” Gregg said. “I am very surprised.”
Fortunately, Gregg said the Raiders haven”t suffered any season-ending injuries. He said one player suffered a broken hand and others are returning from sever sprains. Through the aches and pains, the challenge for him and his assistant coaches will be to keep the players” spirits up and make them understand that they still have a lot to accomplish.
Gregg, a longtime assistant coach at Aberdeen and Amory high schools, might dip into his background to teach some of those lessons. He said Amory High lost its first four games in 2002, including a 13-12 loss to Pontotoc, before it rallied to win its next 10 games. The ninth game was a 28-21 victory against Pontotoc that pushed them into the Class 3A North final, where they beat Corinth before falling to Collins in the state title game.
“We kept on preaching to those kids, and all we have to do is win a ballgame. We have to experience that,” Gregg said. “That team hung in there, stayed close, worked hard, and did what the coaches asked them to do, for the most part, and we beat a lot of great teams down the stretch.
“These kids have to hang in there and trust the coaches and turn that switch on. Until we get out there and experience that success as far as wins go, not moral victories, we don”t ever know how these kids are going to respond. We”re preaching the talk right now. We”ll have to see what happens (tonight).”
Watkins has played a similar role with his players. With only four seniors — Jake Crowe, Kevin Simmons, Jae Shaw, and Marquez Robinson — Watkins has had to do a lot of teaching. He also has done his best to keep the Eagles focused on future rewards, like a possible playoff berth. He said things will even out for his team when it faces its district rivals, who will have teams that are close to the size of his squad.
“It has been pretty rough,” Watkins said. “We expected to come out and play real tough, and we have been playing some real tough competition.”
Hebron Christian opened with losses to Newton Academy (38-0) and to DeSoto School (41-8) before it defeated West Memphis Christian 20-15. Last week, it lost to Benton Academy 46-0.
Watkins said he will remain patient and encouraging because, like Gregg, he sees a lot of potential in his team. With less than 20 players, including three ninth-graders, there is only so much a team that lost 11 players can expect to accomplish in its first four games.
Watkins hopes things will begin to change come the second half. He has seen the offensive line improve its blocking and the defense get better at reading keys, but there still is plenty of work to be done.
“From the beginning I said it would be a learning experience,” Watkins said. “I told them if we squeak out a victory against Central Holmes we will have to play Immanuel and Winona for the district title.
“Hopefully the next five games after Oak Hill they know what is at stake and they will be more mentally prepared.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.