STEENS — James Wriley wasn”t sure the expectations were appropriate.
Coming off a one-win season in 2009, Wriley and the Immanuel Christian football team believed this season could be better. They just weren”t sure how much better they could be.
Second-year coach Shawn Gates added to the mix in the summer when he told his players they could win five or six games and make the playoffs.
If the Rams reached that win total, there was a good chance they would be the school”s first football team to advance to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools playoffs as an 11-player squad.
“At first, judging by last season, I kind of thought the bar was set a little too high,” Wriley said. “But after we saw what we could do as a team, we knew we could get there.”
Immanuel Christian reached both goals last week in a 37-34 victory against Central Holmes Christian in a MAIS Class A, District 3 game. Joel Meek”s 26-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining provided the winning margin on a night in which the Rams evened their record at 5-5.
Wriley said the Rams” confidence grew once they saw they could compete with some of the tougher teams on their schedule. He said the focus and the work rate are completely different from last season, which has helped this team earn a special place.
“It is a good feeling to the team to make history like that, especially coming from a losing season,” Wriley said.
Lineman Jeremy Davidson said the Rams just started doing things right and stopped “lollygagging” in practice. As a result, Immanuel Christian is positioned to be with the best of the best in its classification and is set to prove it belongs.
“Once we realized we could be better than everyone everything started clicking,” said Davidson, whose brother, Cameron, was part of the last playoff team at the school. “He said he was proud of me and it brought back memories for him. Seeing us do what people did before us is nice. We”re all proud of it.”
Senior Wesley Lake also appreciates where the program has been and where it is now. After transferring from Victory Christian to Immanuel Christian for his seventh-grade year, Lake said it is gratifying to reach the playoffs in his final season. He also remembers the 2006 team that was the school”s last football team to reach the playoffs. That team played eight-man football, which makes what the team has accomplished this season even more special.
“It is awesome,” Lake said. “Since I have been at Immanuel it has been losing, losing, losing. This year, we won, and making it to the playoff is beyond what you could imagine, especially for your senior year.”
Despite the lofty projections by Gates at the beginning of the season, Lake wasn”t sure how well the Rams would fare.
“At the beginning of the year, I was just like, it is my senior year and I am going to give it my all and see what happens,” said the 6-foot, 165-pound Lake. “So far it has happened. We are winning. The whole team is believing we can win.”
Lake and his teammates pointed to the work of first-year assistant coaches Bubba Davis and Aaron Lee has helped improve the Rams” fundamentals, which has helped lift the confidence of everyone.
“(Playoffs) means we have reached our goal and we have won as many games in our district as we were supposed to,” senior running back Michael Tate said. “Most of us have been playing together since we were in seventh grade. This year, the pieces finally fit together. We knew we were a good team last year, it”s just that all of the pieces weren”t there. Everyone matured, got stronger, everyone knew their plays better.”
Tate had 18 carries for 220 yards against Central Holmes Christian. He has teamed with Caledonia High transfer Norris Harris to give the Rams a one-two punch out of the backfield. Tate said the beauty of the tandem is defenses will key on player after he has a great week, leaving the other to have an opportunity to do the same thing the next game.
The maturation of quarterback Ross Moore has helped the offense develop greater confidence.
That mind-set played a key role late in the game last week. Gates said he believed in Meek, a sophomore, even though Meek hadn”t kicked a field goal all season. With the game tied at 34, Meek got a second chance at a kick following a penalty and converted a 26-yarder with 10 seconds remaining.
The victory helped Immanuel Christian qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when it lost to Tri-County 20-16 in the Christian Football Association playoffs. The win allowed the Rams to secure second place behind Winona Christian in the four-team district that also includes Hebron Christian.
“The new players who came in definitely helped,” Tate said referring to Harris and Zack Kimbrell. “I expected us to win five or six games. We let a few go by. No one is perfect, but we”re still a good team.”
The five wins this season is the most Immanuel Christian has had since 2003, when Gary White led the team to a 7-3 finish. That team lost to Open Door 48-35 in the CFA playoffs.
The Rams, who started 0-3 this season, haven”t won a playoff game since they beat Faith 40-14 on Nov. 6, 1998, in the opening round of the Southeastern Christian Conference playoffs. They lost in their next game to Victory Christian 42-18 to finish 7-4.
Immanuel Christian will play New Site on Friday in its regular-season finale.
“The next step probably would be to go undefeated in our district and to make the playoffs again and try to have a perfect season,” Tate said. “When you make the playoffs it is the first step to anything you want to accomplish.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.