July 19, 2014 1:50:18 PM
WEST POINT -- Brian Middleton returned home to coach the Oak Hill Academy boys basketball team with high expectations.
While it has taken some time, the Oak Hill Academy players and fans now share those expectations.
"This was the second year in a row we really had high expectations as a team," Middleton said. "We know how far we have come as a program. At the same time, we know how far we need to go. We have been working real hard at turning the corner. The biggest key to turning the corner is playing consistently.
"You get to the point where you don't want to just play well every other night. You want to be able to play well every night. We are getting to the point where people respect our program and they know when we are the opponent, they are going to be in for a battle."
After winning eight games in Middleton's first season, Oak Hill Academy took another gigantic step forward this past season. Middleton completed his sixth season with the Raiders by posting a 23-12 record. Oak Hill Academy also played in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA North State championship game for the first time.
For this success, Middleton has been chosen as The Dispatch's All-Area Small Schools Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
"Brian has an outstanding vision," Oak Hill Academy Headmaster Yandell Harris said. "He understands the importance of hard work and the importance of getting a group of guys to buy into what you are doing. You really have to have everybody pulling in the same direction to be successful. When you don't have a lot of tradition to work with, it is even more important to be able to sell your belief."
Middleton played basketball and baseball at Oak Hill Academy. After graduating from Mississippi State, he knew coaching was his calling. After two seasons as an assistant at Oak Hill Academy, Middleton worked for one season at Marshall Academy under legendary coach Craig Dailey. After one season at Marshall Academy, Middleton received the call to come back home and lead the Raiders.
"Coach Dailey has always been my sounding board," Middleton said. "I always knew what style of coach I wanted to be. Even though coach Dailey and I have different styles, his influence helped solidify some of my philosophies. He always said you will play teams with better players and better coaches. The biggest challenge you then face is overcoming obstacles.
"The challenge to building a successful program is learning how to overcome obstacles. Anyone can play or coach when things are going well. When you win, it becomes even more difficult to continue to win. Those are the things I learned in that one year. It was the best experience of my life."
Middleton jumped at the opportunity to return home and to accept his first job as a head coach. The enthusiasm was short-lived, as that first Oak Hill Academy squad finished 8-20. Each team that has followed has increased the win total.
"When I got this current group together in eighth grade, I knew they could be special," Middleton said. "This group had a 25-0 season as ninth-graders. Still, at the same time, there are no guarantees. The biggest thing has been selling that vision. When you have not had success in the past, it is hard to sell how good you can become.
"You have to have a trust factor. You really have to believe in one another. The hard work has always been there. You can't teach that as a coach. You just feel fortunate when that work ethic is present. There is not a day that goes by that a player or two doesn't call and want to get into the gym. We have had success and know they want more."
Middleton's second squad won 12 games, while his third won 14. The fourth squad finally posted a winning season (16-14). A year ago, Oak Hill Academy won 20 games before really breaking through this past season.
"We had some really big wins this year," Oak Hill Academy senior Stephen Ross said. "It is really hard to believe we started the season 8-5. We knew we had the pieces, but it was just a matter of playing consistently. We had to play more as a team. Coach Middleton has really been there pushing us the whole time.
"He knew what it was going to take for us to reach that next level. There is nothing like a coach being totally supportive and knowing what it takes for you to enjoy success."
Oak Hill Academy eventually found the second gear. The Raiders made some lineup tweaks and played their best basketball down the stretch. In January, Oak Hill Academy defeated perennial power Canton Academy. It was the first tangible sign of what Middleton had been preaching for several seasons.
"Canton was 3-0 against us last season," Middleton said. "They beat us twice in overtime and we lost another game right at the buzzer. Chemistry is the key. All of the players will tell you what kind of chemistry we had. That played a big role in our success. We went to Canton and Drew (Riley) had a really great night. After we won that game, we really focused in on our goals of playing in the north state championship game. We knew that would be a major threshold for this team to accomplish."
In its final regular-season game, Oak Hill Academy sent shockwaves around the state by beating top-ranked Leake Academy. Leake Academy returned the favor with a 64-55 victory in the North State championship game. The season ended five days later with a 52-41 loss to Brookhaven Academy.
"Playing for the North State championship game was a great experience," Middleton said. "How the season ended bothered me because I still thought we had a couple of games left. But we only had two seniors and we have 19 players returning for this upcoming season. I think chemistry wise we will be even better. This group learned so much last season. After the Brookhaven loss, we talked about how it happened and how it can't happen again.
"It is all about consistency. We had some nights where we didn't play our best. We are the type of team that has to really be at our best to beat the elite teams. Other people are now looking at us as one of the top teams in Class AA. It is a big credit to these guys for working so hard to earn and uphold that reputation."
Middleton said the recent success has increased the desire to take the next step. At a practice during the season, players were asked to raise their hand if they had won a district championship. For most, the championship total was at four, including high school and junior high titles.
"You can't teach winning. You have to learn how to do it," Middleton said. "What did us in at the end of the season was the lack of experience. We weren't used to being in those big games, and it really showed. However, the more times you give yourself this type of opportunity, the better you will respond."
Middleton will look for a good response from the Oak Hill Academy boys and girls. During the offseason, Middleton was asked to also take over the girls basketball program following the departure of veteran coach Stan Hughey, who left the school after two decades of coaching the Lady Raiders.
"I love coach Hughey to death," Middleton said. "No one knows more offensive basketball than he does. I learned so much from him, and I really feel humbled to be asked to take his place. He has built one of the premier programs. My job was to help get the boys to that level. Now it is my job to make sure both teams perform on that level.
"It is humbling, but it is also very exciting. We have the pieces in place. I know nobody is going to outwork us. The expectations are really high for both teams. We look forward to making sure those expectations are met."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter