October 30, 2013 9:41:39 PM
When the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools created a power point format for selecting its Class AA playoff participants, Oak Hill Academy coach Daniel Merchant felt like his team needed to play a challenging schedule.
The difficult schedule paid off over the weekend when the Raiders earned a wild-card spot in the playoffs. For Oak Hill Academy, it is second straight playoff appearance after going winless in 2011.
Playing as the No. 15 seed in the 16-team tournament, Oak Hill Academy (5-5) faces No. 2 seed Centreville Academy (9-1) in a first-round matchup Friday night.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in Centreville.
"The schedule really helped us out," Merchant said. "We knew it was something we needed to do. Every team we lost to finished with a winning record and also made the playoffs. We really challenged our kids this year. I think the experiences we had throughout the season will help us in the playoffs."
Oak Hill Academy actually placed fourth in Class AA, Region 2 play. However, the Raiders had enough quality losses (for example to defending Class AAA, Division II state champion Heritage Academy) and enough quality wins (for example over Class AA, Region 1 champion Indianola Academy -- the only defeat for the Colonels this season) to push the power point index in its favor.
"Every coach can look back on the season and say they would like to have certain games back," Merchant said. "There are nights when you don't play up to your potential. The bottom line is getting in the playoffs. When you reach this point, everybody starts over, so there is a satisfaction that you have done enough to qualify."
When Merchant inherited the Raiders program prior to last season, changing the culture took some time. Early-season victories over Newton Academy and Winston Academy quickly made the players believers. Oak Hill Academy eventually finished 6-6 on the campaign, after earning a wild-card spot in those playoffs under the old format. The season ended with a 42-14 first-round playoff loss at North Delta Academy.
Prior to that, Oak Hill Academy last made the playoffs in 2007 and last had a winning regular season in 2005. Thus to qualify for a second straight season is a pretty big deal in Clay County. However, the excitement of advancing has been tempered by a strong work ethic.
"The kids were a little awe about getting in the playoffs last year, because it had been a while," Merchant said. "This year is totally different. Even though you never know for sure, the kids were highly confident that we would get in. So the focus now is going on the road and playing well enough to advance. Making the playoffs is not good enough now. They want to get in and keep playing. It's a good thing when the players start believing in that."
Oak Hill Academy does enter the postseason on its second two-game losing streak of the season. After the victory over Indianola Academy, the Raiders dropped a 49-14 decision at Canton Academy and a 35-0 home decision to Class AA, Region 2 champion Leake Academy.
Still, Merchant feels like his squad has a chance to pull the upset at Centreville, despite playing more than 260 miles from home.
"Centreville likes to run the spread (offense) and throw the football," Merchant said. "Our job will be to control the clock and make first downs. We have had good success against teams who like to run the spread this year. Hopefully, that will continue. If we can contain them and keep drives alive on offense, we will have a chance to be successful."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Sykes' faith leads him to coach at Starkville Academy HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Lessons learned helped Coggin earn promotion COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Mangum wins SEC batting title COLLEGE SPORTS