WEST POINT — The Oak Hill Academy football team missed the playoffs last season.
But Chris Craven’s Raiders might have found the formula Friday night that will help them earn a playoff berth.
The formula features a defense that never breaks, even in the bleakest of circumstances, and an offense with a knack for big plays.
Oak Hill Academy displayed both options in a 14-0 victory against Winona Christian in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AA, District 1 opener for both teams.
“We had a great defense tonight,” Craven said. “We made some athletic plays tonight.
“It is very important to start off with a 1-0 record. We’re in a very competitive conference. In the MAIS, if you want to know you’re in the playoffs, you need to be a district champion. Our team pursuit is to do everything we can to be district champs and know we are in the playoffs.”
Although the Stars (2-2) rushed for nearly 200 yards, the Raiders stonewalled them when they needed to. Oak Hill Academy forced four turnovers on downs, including two inside the 20-yard line, and forced four turnovers.
“This game meant everything,” Oak Hill Academy junior Ethan Bryan said. “We have waited all season for this moment and this game. We have given 100 percent. We have a lot of heart this year. It’s going to mean more to us than anyone else.”
Oak Hill’s defense withstood threats throughout the first half. The Raiders recovered a fumble on the opening series and forced a turnover on downs in its territory in the first quarter, halting the Stars’ second drive at the 40.
Oak Hill Academy then stuffed Winona Christian at the 4-yard line in the second quarter. On Winona Christian’s next possession, Dylan Scott made an interception on the goal line and returned it 56 yards. The interception set up the Raiders’ first score three plays later.
On top of the two fumble recoveries and the interception, Oak Hill Academy broke up a Hail Mary heave to the end zone at the end of the first half.
“Coach Carl Middleton and coach Cody Allen did a heck of a job getting our guys ready,” Craven said. “Hats off to them and these guys. We are not going to quit. We might mess up, but we are not going to quit.”
In the second half, Oak Hill Academy (2-1) limited Winona Christian to three first downs and 76 yards. Winona Christian crossed the 50-yard line only once in the last 24 minutes. The performance was gritty, tough and needed for a confidence boost.
“We had to be gritty and aggressive. We couldn’t back down from (Winona Christian),” Bryan said. “Even when they ran it down our throats, we had to be more aggressive. We got some big stops.”
John Carver Middleton capitalized on Scott’s interception when the senior quarterback connected with Daniel Harrington for a 40-yard strike. Harrington broke several tackles en route to the end zone.
To start the second half, Riley Tate used a handful of blocks, broke free at midfield and returned the kickoff 76 yards to account for the final margin.
“Dylan Scott and I had worked out a trick play right before the kickoff,” Tate said. “I saw an opening in their coverage, and I got through them. I think the kickoff return turned the game around for us.”
Although Oak Hill Academy rushed for only 19 yards, Middleton was 6-for-12 for 76 yards. Bryan, who was his team’s leading rusher, helped the Raiders convert a first down late that sealed the game.
In the high emotions of the night, the remembrance of Thomas Bales was visible. After the game, the Raiders patted the No. 9 logo at midfield. The logo serves as a reminder for the rising junior who died Aug. 5 at Smith Lake in Alabama while on an overnight church retreat. Bales, 16, who was from Aberdeen, remains on the Oak Hill Academy roster. His locker remains as he left it.
Some kneeled silently at the logo, soon joined by teammates, coaches, and fans. The logo was an ideal place for the Raiders to celebrate their hard-fought win.
“It’s been very emotional,” Craven said. “The past weeks have been a proverbial roller coaster, you might say. There’s not a day that goes by that we do not think of Thomas Lee. We aren’t playing for him; we are trying to become him. He was tough. He was a high-character guy and was a team player. We want to be everything Thomas Lee was for us. To be able to gather around the No. 9 circle after the game, it means a lot. I am so proud our players, coming over here to this logo.”