December 24, 2013 10:32:43 AM
WEST POINT -- When he was an eighth-grader at Oak Hill Academy, Joseph Caskey decided to give football a try.
"It was something all of my buddies were doing, and it looked like they were having fun with it," Caskey said. "I went out for the team and realized it was something I could be pretty good at. From there, I just kept trying to work hard to get better each season."
As Caskey improved, so did Oak Hill Academy.
Recording a team-high 66 tackles at defensive end, Caskey helped the Raiders to a second-straight Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA playoff berth for the first time in more than a decade.
For his accomplishments, Caskey is The Dispatch's Small School All-Area Defense Player of the Year.
"We were coming off a 6-6 record last year (in 2012) and made the playoffs, so we look at that as motivation," Caskey said. "We wanted to do more. It was a fun run for the seniors. A lot of really good things happened to this football program, and it was great to be part of that."
Caskey was a three-year starter. He started at defensive tackle his first two seasons before moving to defensive end. The Raiders were winless in 2011. Coach Daniel Merchant has guided the team to records of 6-6 and 5-6, with two first-round playoff losses.
"It was a big difference," Caskey said of the coaching change. "He told us from day one nothing was going to be easy. He gave us a plan to be successful. We have worked hard because it is something we have wanted to do. Nobody has given us anything."
Oak Hill Academy ended the losing streak with a victory against Newton County Academy in Merchant's debut as coach. The following week, Oak Hill Academy beat district rival Winston Academy.
"All it really took was one win," Caskey said. "After that, people become hungry to get another win. After we beat Winston, the students started talking about football. When the community gets excited, then you take pride in that. As seniors this year, we knew we had some opportunities, so we were going to do what we could to make the most of them."
For Caskey, the opportunities have been numerous. He flourished at defensive end, earning a second-straight first-team All-District honor and a second-team All-State honor.
"I had been waiting for a chance to play defensive end," Caskey said. "At tackle, you are mostly setting up the blocks for the linebackers. At defensive end, it is more one-on-one on the edge and you can be in on more tackles. We wanted to go further than we did, but even though we didn't, I had a lot of fun this year."
Caskey capped his prep career earlier this month with an appearance in the MAIS All-Star game.
"That was a big deal for this program because it had been about seven years since we had someone chosen for the All-Star game," Merchant said. "Joseph is a great kid who always led by example. He is not real loud, but he sets the standard in the weight room and on the football field."
Joseph's parents, Paul and Kim Caskey, helped him establish his work ethic. Paul played football and baseball at West Point High School and East Mississippi Community College. Joseph is the oldest of two children. His younger brother, Jonah, is expected to play on the seventh-grade football team at Oak Hill Academy this fall.
"My parents have always been supportive from the beginning," Caskey said. "The main thing is they have never pushed me into sports. The decisions have always been mine to make. When it was something I wanted to do, they gave me all of the love and support possible to be the best at it."
As the Raiders became one of the area's best teams, people took notice.
"I think last season woke a lot of people up," Caskey said. "That includes the players as well. Once you have success, it motivates you to want to do even more."
Merchant saw that motivation from Caskey as the two quickly bonded upon the new coach's arrival last season.
"You could look at the tape from the year before and you could see (in 2012) he was easily one our of most-improved players," Merchant said. "That carried over to this season. He did what you want out of all of your players, he got better each week throughout the season. All of the honors are justified because he was the heart and soul of our defensive unit. He would have a chance to play at the next level if there is something he decides he wants to do."
As a decision about college draws closer, Caskey will evaluate his prospects. Baseball also is a consideration, as Caskey returns as the starter at catcher for the Raiders in the spring.
"Baseball has always been a lot of fun to me, too," Caskey said. "It is getting close to that time to grow up and make some of those decisions. The future will be exciting either way. I am just appreciative of the opportunities football has given me so far."
Caskey also can thank a few of his friends for those opportunities.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter