September 29, 2013 1:22:30 AM
Belief is one way to make up a 42-point deficit in one season.
But believing will take you only so far, which is why Daniel Merchant has made strengthening the bodies of his Oak Hill Academy football players just as much a priority as he has his attempts to build the players' confidence.
The results of both approaches were on display Friday night in a 23-14 loss to Heritage Academy at C.L. Mitchell Field in Columbus.
A year ago, Merchant's first as head coach of the program, the Raiders had little success in a 42-0 loss to the Patriots. Oak Hill Academy had only one first down -- on a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter -- and had -42 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Even though the Patriots earned their seventh-straight victory in the series dating back to 2006 on Friday, Merchant was pleased with the progress his team made in nearly one year.
"The kids are working harder and believing in our system now," Merchant said. "The dedication in the offseason also has played a big role. We had 30-plus guts for 30 workouts. We are definitely at the corner, and I think we are fixin' to turn it."
Oak Hill Academy's development comes on the heels of a 6-6 season in which it advanced to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA playoffs. A loss to North Delta Academy in the first round was the program's first playoff appearance since 2007. The Raiders also recorded their first winning regular season since 2005.
This season, Oak Hill Academy has shown even bigger strides. It lost a tough 48-42 decision to Marshall Academy earlier in the season. Marshall is coming off an 11-win season in 2012. Oak Hill Academy also stayed with perennial MAIS power Tri-County Academy before falling 33-20. A victory last week at Newton County Academy served notice all of the talk about Oak Hill Academy's improvement isn't overstated.
Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe saw on film how much Oak Hill Academy has improved since 2012, so he wasn't surprised his team had all it could handle on Homecoming.
"Coach (Bruce) Branch and I said on the sidelines that this game is going to the fourth quarter," Donahoe said. "The atmosphere, the rise of Oak Hill and them becoming a better football team under his leadership, we knew this was going to be a good football game, and it was. I felt our guys got a little too complacent. I felt like our guys didn't respond really well when we had some mistakes. I thought they should have had a little more resiliency, but, overall, it was a good job."
Heritage Academy still controlled the points of attacks for large stretches of the game. Oak Hill Academy capitalized on a reverse handoff to Samuel Harrell that went for 29 yards that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Drake Riley.
"That is a play we put in probably two weeks ago and we have been repping it, repping it, repping it," Merchant said. "We did some reverse last week and it worked for us. We fake our sweep outside and we reverse it back with our wing back. It is not a normal Wing-T play, but we made it in there. I think it is a great deception play for us."
Curt Huffman's fingertip catch and juggle and subsequent 54-yard run off a pass from Riley Pierce accounted for the Raiders' other score. Unfortunately, the Patriots had six sacks and disrupted a lot of what the Raiders tried to do. Still, the improvement was significant.
"We couldn't move the ball and we see they are definitely stronger than we are," Merchant said. "They are AAA and they are obviously going to be stronger, but we did some good things tonight to counter their blitz. They have a great defense. Coach Donahoe has done a great job. My hat is off to them."
Merchant's hat also is off to his players, who he praised for their fight. With a Class AA, District 2AA game at Manchester Academy set for next week, the Raiders have their postseason fate in their hands. The top teams from the district will advance with four wild-card teams. The MAIS has gone to a system that awards "power points" for victories, which is why Oak Hill Academy's victory last week is so important.
If the Raiders compete like they did against the Patriots, Merchant feels good about his team's chances.
"They have a lot of confidence," Merchant said. "It is night and day compared to last year. We're way ahead of last year and way ahead of the schedule. We just battled the Class AAA state champions to a very close ballgame. If we have a good week and get ready for Manchester Academy next week, I think we will be all right."
"I just want them to come out and keep fighting like they have been. We have four huge games in a row for power points and for the district. They just have to come out with confidence like they have all year. Not a lot of people probably thought we were going to hang with this team, and that has to be a confidence-builder for them."
Huffman had two solo tackles and an interception. Darnell also had an interception.
Paxton Trull had four assisted tackles, one fumble recovery, and one forced fumble. Drake Riley had seven solo tackles and a team-high 16 tackles. Drew Riley was right behind with eight solos (15 overall, including two for loss). Dakota O'Bryant had five solo tackles (eight), while Matthew Gwathney had one solo tackle (four, including one for loss), and Lane Clark had one solo (four, including two for loss).
"I think they'll take it and try to leave the corner and try to get around that corner," Merchant said. "They are hungry. They want to win. Every time they come out here they believe they're going to win the football game. That's what we're trying to get to, and that's what I am seeing. I think that is where we're headed."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.