Oak Hill Academy football coach Daniel Merchant admits he did not watch any tape of his new team before taking the head coaching job with the Raiders.
It is quite the honest question – Would Merchant still have taken the job if he knew the abyss the Raiders were in?
When that question was asked, Merchant said the Oak Hill opportunity provided him with his first head coaching job and a chance to move closer to home.
In short, Merchant was coming and he was going to make do with what he was presented, regardless of the status of the program.
When Merchant arrived and started breaking down his first roster, he saw a lack of numbers and a lack of depth. Conversely, he felt good about the talent level.
In 2011, Oak Hill Academy played 10 games and won none of them. On most nights, a quarter of competitive football was the best the Raiders could offer.
Merchant realized the first task at hand was two-fold — Get the athletes in the school out to play the game and teach these athletes what it is like to win.
In August of last season, Merchant was candid when he admitted he was not sure what to expect when his team took the field for the first time.
Four weeks was spent preaching confidence. Yes, there was an offense to install and a defense to put in, as well. However, those were minor tasks. The major task was taken a bunch of players who had suffered a series of demoralizing losses to convince them they belong in uniform on a football field on a Friday night.
Oak Hill defeated Newton County Academy, 13-6, in that series opener. Newton County would go on to win eight games and its region in Class A play. Oak Hill went on to win six games. Each victory that followed had a little bit of that opening Friday night in it.
Against Newton County, Oak Hill learned how to crawl. A week later, Oak Hill knocked off Class AA region rival Winston County 27-21. All of a sudden, the Raiders were beginning to walk.
Merchant said the hardest task he had to accomplish after taking over was instilling confidence. He had to convince a group of players they could work together for a common goal and achieve success in the end.
Any football team faces adversity. Later, there was a three-game losing streak. Merchant was quite eager to see how his team would respond. It was not like the Raiders were not used to losing streaks.
Merchant said he saw the same level of commitment at practice and the same attitude in team meeting and film study. Seeing that attitude gave the first-year head coach a welcomed sigh of relief. A group of players who had done a certain set of things to achieve success was still doing those same things.
In other words, the players had finally bought in.
The ship was indeed righted. Oak Hill won its final three regular season games and finished with the school’s first regular-season winning season since 2005.
The right things fell into place and the Raiders got a nod for the Class AA playoffs, for the first time since 2007. In the postseason, the season ended with first-round loss to North Delta Academy.
Earlier this month, Merchant said his first team has reached its maximum potential. Rarely, do you hear a coach give his team that level of praise.
For several years, Oak Hill Academy had pinned the resurgence of its football program on a talented group of junior high players. The junior high Raiders went two seasons without losing a game.
The young players came to the varsity level expecting to win. The varsity level greeted them with a handful of talented returnees, who had been reading up on winning themselves.
It all came together last Friday when Oak Hill beat Hartfield Academy 31-0 in the season opener.
The Raiders had gone from hoping to maybe win one game in a season to going out and totally dominating an out-manned opponent for four quarters.
Merchant said this fall has been easy. Instead of working on the psychological makeup of the team, the fall was spent working on Xs and Os and becoming better football players.
Six regular season wins provided all of the motivation needed to keep the weight room lights on well into the night throughout the summer.
It has all come together quite nicely for Merchant. The numbers are up, the smiles are wide and more than one ticket taker is needed on game night.
Will the Raiders being able to close the gap and contend for a region championship?
Will the Raiders make a run in the playoffs?
Well all games matter, Merchant hinted he was eager for the Sept. 27 matchup with Heritage Academy. A Class AAA state champion last year, the Patriots pushed the Raiders around to the tune of 91-0 in the last two seasons combined.
The jury is still out on how far this team can travel. The pieces are in place and their is belief on a campus where the school year seemingly started when the basketball team tipped off each year.
What we do know is Merchant believes in his players and the players believe in him. Equally important, the players believe in one another.
Merchant is glad he came.
And deep down inside, he probably is glad he didn’t turn on the video tape before he did.
Scott Walters is a reporter for the Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.