December 28, 2012 9:39:06 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
In five years as coach at West Oktibbeha County High School, Adam Lowrey has built relationships, trust, and a program. God has been his pillar.
Daniel Merchant knew he was going to need help transforming the Oak Hill Academy football program in his first season as coach. His ability to help convince his players to forget a winless season and to believe paved the way for one of the best turnarounds in the state.
While Lowrey and Merchant coaches on opposite ends of the spectrum this season, they both used similar approaches to help the program have stellar seasons. At West Oktibbeha, Lowrey guided the Timberwolves to a single-season record for victories (eight), while Merchant turned the page from an 0-10 finish in 2011 to help the Raiders win six games and get back to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools playoffs.
For their accomplishments, Lowrey and Merchant are The Dispatch's Small Schools co-Coaches of the Year.
"It has been a growth for me as a man and as a coach," Lowrey said. "I have heard people say that when times get tough you have to go with what you know. People try to put a front on in front of you, but when you get behind closed doors you see who the real person is. That kind of happened. Failure will make you come to grips with who you are real quick. Our first year, we went 1-10. If it wouldn't have been for Tiberias (Lampkin) and four more eighth-graders, we wouldn't have finished the season. We only had 13 people. I had to bring up five of them. It became a survival of the fittest. I have been raised in church, and all I have known since I have been a little boy was about God and about Jesus. It really became real to me through our failures because people say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Through the course of my five years (at West Oktibbeha County High), there have been times when I felt like this thing is dead and done with and I might as well try something else."
This season, Lowrey relied on senior leaders like Lampkin and quarterback Von Smith to put the Timberwolves in position to return to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A playoffs. Unfortunately, even though West Oktibbeha earned the No. 3 seed in Class 1A, Region 3, the school's loss of accreditation caused it to be ineligible for the postseason. While that decision prevented the Timberwolves from playing at least one more game, it didn't take away from what Lowrey directed. He feels his work and the work of his assistant coaches this season was the culmination of years of teaching and preaching.
"We have done a lot of teaching, but this year in particular, one of our coaches was telling me he saw Tiberias talking to one of our younger players about faith," Lowrey said. "When you see your boys not only remember what you said but verbalizing it to another kid, I think that is when we saw the biggest change. That is what you want. You want them to buy in, but when they start saying we believe this is a part of who we are, that makes a lot of difference."
Lampkin, The Dispatch's Small Schools Offensive Player of the Year, said Lowrey's message has taken hold in Maben in part because the players see he lives the life he preaches. After some initial difficulties, Lampkin said this year's team took the lessons to another level.
"When he came, he had a group of seniors and a group of juniors, too, that really didn't listen," Lampkin said. "Smokin', drinkin', you name it, they were doing it. They didn't have that faith they were building up on, so you're telling yourself, 'If we don't have the faith our coach is telling us to have, we're going to be like them. They had some pretty much bad seasons because they didn't have a team built up on the faith and they didn't have seniors who told everybody they had to listen because if they did they would have had better success.
"We bought into the faith because I grew up on the background of God, and so did the rest of my teammates. What he told us, we already had it in us, so the only thing we had to do as to tell guys who didn't have it or tell the younger than us that what coach is telling us is true because we have been through this and we have been through this and we know this, so this is what is going to work. That is why we had so much success this year. This year, we said we had built up the faith, so you guys have to build up the faith. That is what helped us come together as one."
Turning the corner
Lowrey uses an example from a practice this season to point how things came together. One day as players were involved in a drill, Lowrey said a freshman offensive lineman stopped and told him he couldn't do what he was being asked to do. Before he realized it, Lowrey said he told the player, "You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you." He said it caught him by surprise because he was frustrated and mad. The player looked at him, nodded his head, and went back to the drill.
"I wouldn't change anything," Lowrey said. "He has grown me up, and I am not necessarily sitting here because of how good a coach I am, but because where he has brought us to. It has been a growth period."
Merchant experienced a similar growth in his first season as a head football coach. He had spent time as baseball coach at Immanuel Christian in Steens. Coming back to the area, Merchant realized after watching film of Oak Hill Academy that the team faced a challenge. To make sure his players had the right mind-set, Merchant coined the phrase "We Believe" and had his players wear T-shirts with that message on the back. It didn't take long for the message to take hold.
"They were excited about winning and wanted to win, obviously, going 0-10 a year ago," Merchant said. "I could tell they bought into it in the weight room in June and July that they had a lot of enthusiasm about believing and buying into what we were trying to do."
Merchant said he and his assistant coaches were enthusiastic and worked together to develop camaraderie. He feels that carried over to the players and helped them build chemistry that enabled the Raiders to have one of their best seasons in recent memory.
Merchant admitted he wondered watching film if things were going to work at Oak Hill Academy. His decision to talk to the rising seniors on his first day at the school and his ability to convince them to be "stepping stones" not "stumbling blocks" for the program was a key part of the team's success.
"They came through and were big leaders for us this season," Merchant said. "After seeing their enthusiasm in the weight room and how they got after it in practice, I knew they wanted something different."
Ultimately, Merchant's ability to convince the Raiders to forget about 2011 and focus on the present enabled them to establish a foundation this season. It's one he hopes to build on in the years to come thanks to faith and belief.
"We said we were going to forget everything from last year and that we were going to teach them from the ground up," Merchant said. "Looking back, you say, 'How in the world did we go 6-6? We easily could have been 3-7 or 4-9. But it was a good experience. I give my assistant coaches a lot of praise because they helped me out a whole lot, and we all worked together."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.