July 19, 2014 1:52:14 PM
WEST POINT -- Since his eighth-grade year, Oak Hill Academy's Drake Riley and his boys basketball teammates have talked about winning a state championship.
With Riley preparing for his senior season, he sees the squad on the doorstep of reaching that goal.
"We knew we had a chance to be really good," Riley said. "We knew we had the potential. This past season, we had a great group of seniors and juniors. With so many players back, we really feel like this can be our year."
Oak Hill Academy rewrote the school's record book this past season. The Raiders finished 23-12 and played in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA North State championship game for the first time.
Riley, a 6-foot-2 junior forward, averaged 14 points per game and provided key leadership for the veteran squad. For his success, Riley has been named The Dispatch's Small Schools All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
"We really had a step up from last year," Riley said. "We played with more team chemistry. We started hitting the post more this season and had more balance. Once the season got started, we really got some things going."
Riley and his twin brother, Drew, have made key contributions to Oak Hill Academy's transformation in football and boys basketball. In football, Oak Hill Academy was winless in 2011. In the past two years, Oak Hill Academy has won 11 games and returned to the MAIS playoffs. The Riley brothers combined to rush for better than 1,500 yards last season.
"I think the football success has played a major role in our success," Oak Hill Academy boys basketball coach Brian Middleton said. "Winning is contagious, and it doesn't matter where you are winning. What we have is a hard-working group. We have a group that is determined not to be outworked by any other team. I think there has been a major carry-over effect."
For the football Raiders, the building has been from the ground up. The basketball reclamation has been similar.
"The main thing is this group of guys has always been determined," Riley said. "We have been playing together -- most of us -- since sixth grade. The main thing is to not lose focus in practice. The biggest thing is consistency. We have so many good players, so it really pushes you to be even better as an individual player."
After winning 20 games in his sophomore season, Riley knew the Raiders had the potential to turn the corner. This past season, Oak Hill Academy earned landmark victories against longtime rivals Canton Academy and Leake Academy -- two of the state's premier Class AA programs. The victory against Canton Academy came in early January and established Oak Hill Academy as a contender for the state title. With only two seniors, Oak Hill Academy sent them out in grand style later with the huge home victory against Leake Academy.
"It really changed for us after we beat Leake," Riley said. "They were No. 1 in the state at the time and they had already locked up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Still, we came out really ready to play. We wanted to win and prove just how far we have come as a team. That was the biggest win of the season. The biggest thing it did was put in a position to want even more in the year ahead."
Riley has always wanted more in athletics. He needs to look no further than the stands for the support he needs.
"My sister (Danielle) is at every game," Riley said. "She is always the loudest person in the stands. You know exactly where she is. My parents (Stacy and Andy Riley) have always been very supportive of my athletic career. Then playing with my brother is the best thing that could ever happen.
"It has always been a competition between us since the day we were born. We really compete in everything. He has pushed me to become an even better player and an even better person, so I feel blessed to have that situation."
Middleton feels blessed to have Drake Riley being a leader in practice every day.
"Drake has been an incredible leader," Middleton said. "We have 19 players returning for next season. There has always been a lot of balance. On any night, a different player can lead us. Drake has shown the younger players how to accept your role and how to be a leader in that role. That is what makes him a special player.
"On any given night, we ask three players to reach double figures. We feel like if we can get three players into double figures, then we have a chance to compete with anybody in the state."
Oak Hill Academy has learned how to compete with the state's elite in football and in boys basketball. The key word is chemistry. The Raiders have lots of it and they understand its importance.
"My teammates are like my brothers," Riley said. "We have great chemistry. We know we can achieve anything we set our mind to as long as we are working together. All of the tough losses when we were younger are really paying off now. We have a tremendous amount of chemistry. We know where we are going, and I think we understand a little more about what it will take to get there."
This past season, Oak Hill Academy defeated Leake Academy in the regular season but fell to that same squad a week later in the North State championship game. The season ended with a loss to Brookhaven Academy in the MAIS Class AA state tournament.
While Riley will help lead a talented senior class into action this past season, there is still unfinished business. Oak Hill Academy still hasn't won a football playoff game in the past two seasons. The boys basketball team also is still chasing a championship.
"We had a great season," Riley said. "Everybody at the school is really excited about what we are trying to do. Still, we want more. When your season ends with a bad loss, it makes you want even more. That is why we have worked so hard since last season ended. There is still so much more we want to accomplish."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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