October 9, 2013 8:56:33 PM
When West Okitbbeha County High School senior Eddie Johnson started making plans for Homecoming night, it is a safe bet he had every detail of his tuxedo already planned out.
It is also fair to say that a football uniform was nowhere in the plans.
Yet, Johnson will be out there with the rest of his Timberwolves teammates Friday night.
West Oktibbeha will play host to East Oktibbeha in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A, Region 3 matchup. Each team has identical 0-4 marks. Each team has been waiting quite some time for something good to happen.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in Maben.
"I know a lot of players on their team," Johnson said. "We play ball during the summer. We're real close. Homecoming is special. You want to look good in your tux. Then you also want to win the football game. It could make the season."
These are strange times indeed for both schools.
The State Department of Education took over the Oktibbeha County School District last October after a repeated pattern of poor test scores on standardized state testing. While the school district is under conservatorship, neither school will be eligible to play in any MHSAA-sanctioned postseason event. The ban is to cover three schools years and is expected to extend through the summer of 2015. Each school is limited to playing only its nine-game region schedule.
"The attitude is good," East Oktibbeha first-year coach John Davis said. "We are simply playing the hand we have been dealt. Our goal was to come out and win every game this season. It is tough knowing that you are not going to be able to compete for the playoffs. You have to find another motivation and that is really hard."
Last season, West Oktibbeha won eight games and appeared ready to make a deep run in the MHSAA North State playoffs. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the sanctions were handed down and the life of both programs was sucked out.
"We are upset, but there is nothing you can do about it but play through it," West Oktibbeha junior linebacker Lysanius Ford said. "Coaches tell us all the time to do our best for 55 minutes in the classroom. We take the same approach to the football field. We are trying to do our best for two hours there. Still, it is hard. It is like there is no reason to play. You are here for your brothers and that is about it."
With the school's immediate football-playing future cloudy, Adam Lowrey resigned after five seasons as head coach at West Oktibbeha. Lowrey is now coaching junior high football at West Point High School. Under Lowrey, the Timberwolves won all five rivalry meetings with the Titans. Overall, West Oktibbeha has won six straight in the series.
Danny Crawford was already the school's athletic director and both boys' and girls' basketball coach. He took over the football program because quite simply no one else would come into this situation and take the job.
"We had to get the numbers up," Crawford said. "I really can't blame anyone who left. We only had four players back from Coach Lowrey's final team."
To solve that problem, Crawford required his basketball players to also play football. Johnson and Ford joined the football team this year thanks to that mandate. In the end, West Oktibbeha actually increased its count by six players and currently lists 23 players on its roster. East Oktibbeha, which won two games last season, saw a drop with 28 players on this year's team, compared to 35 last season. While it did not help from a practice standpoint, both teams benefited from not being allowed to star practice until four weeks later than everyone else.
"We had about 14 players out when school started, so we had to do some recruiting," said Davis, who came from Lawrence County to East Oktibbeha for his first head coaching job. "It's a hard sale when you don't know what is next. I think this week is a little different. We have talked about the rivalry every day in practice. Since we are both 0-4, I think this is the type of game where each player will put everything on the line. It is going to get harder as the season goes, along. Of course we want to win as many of these game as we can."
While the motivation was already hard to find when the season started, both coaching staffs have been battling a blatant talent deficiency. The two teams have been outscored 362-27 this season.
"This season has been different because a lot of us have not played ball before," Williams said. "Coach is doing best he can to coach us up. We have been coming along but it has been incredibly slow."
East Oktibbeha can relate to the struggles.
"We are a good team," East Oktibbeha senior lineman Clayton Carr said. "We just got to do it in the game. When we get to the game, we got to do what we do in practice, because we look good there. People keep putting us down and that is why we work this hard. We got to get it together and stop arguing as a team. This is the most important game of the season, so we need to act right now."
In the summer of 2015, a decision is expected for the long term future of the Oktibbeha County School District. The most likely scenario involves both West and East Oktibbeha being closed and those high-school aged students being assigned to Starkville High. That was not the probable outcome when Davis took the East Oktibbeha job back in the spring.
"I really wanted a head coaching job," Davis said. "This was a chance to get that and to get it close to home. At the time, I felt really good about the schools staying separate and continuing. Now, I don't feel good about that. Still, you got to wait to see how this goes."
The sanctions have played a role in almost every aspect of both programs. Between players moving to other school districts, coaches leaving and no hopes for postseason play, things have been difficult. The late start time to practice did not help. Crawford said even the ability to get players recruited is close to nonexistent, since both school's athletic programs are quickly becoming an after-thought in their limited capacity.
East Oktibbeha senior running back/linebacker Justin Williams will be one of the premier athletes on the field Friday night. Williams has run for 338 yards on offense and has recorded a staggering 57 tackles on defense. As one of a precious few veterans ready for his final West-East game, Williams was emotional when summing up the strange trek of his football career.
"It is a big rivalry game and we have practiced well for it," Williams said. "The biggest difference is we have changed some folks up. This is the first time this year where we feel like we are better than the other team. Now, it is just a matter of going out there and showing it.
"I knew this was my senior year, so I looked at it as go hard or go home. There is still an excitement every time you take the field on a Friday night. You can't describe it and there is nothing like it. Each week we come out and hope for better. One day, that will happen."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter