“Finish strong” meant more than a simple sports cliché for Ouachita Christian fans to put on a t-shirt. Instead, it was two words that would serve as a building block for a state championship season.

When OCS fans think back to 2019, they’ll remember the eye-popping offensive numbers, the way the defense swarmed to the football, quarterback Hunter Herring’s emergence as one of the best quarterbacks in the area and Will Fitzhugh eclipsing 7,000 career all-purpose yards in his storied OCS career. Heck, fans got to witness all four things in a 67-22 victory against Catholic-Pointe Coupee in the Division IV State Championship Game.

But what should be remembered is OCS’ perseverance on and off the field. Better yet, the 2019 Eagles fought diligently to “finish strong” in all aspects of life this year. The origin of that team motto was born out of heartbreak. When OCS was searching for a season mantra, OCS head coach Steven Fitzhugh was toying with ideas. One of them involved those two words, but on OCS’ 2019 schedule, they were accompanied by a picture of Southern Lab’s game-winning touchdown against OCS in 2018. Fitzhugh couldn’t pull the trigger. That 22-21 second-round loss was still too painful. But that’s where the mentality of finishing strong was born.

The Eagles coaching staff took a negative in 2018 — three losses by a combined six points — and made it the cornerstone of the 2019 season. So when the going got tough, you better believe OCS got tougher.

Down 20 points to favorite Calvary Baptist on the road in the playoffs? Suck it up. Finish strong. In the midst of a back-and-forth, high-scoring semifinal game against Country Day? Do your job. Sprint to the finish.

These qualities were needed to make this dream postseason run come alive, and they were forged in what Steven Fitzhugh called the greatest offseason he’s had in a long time. Players who participate in 30 workout sessions or more over the summer are rewarded with a steak dinner. OCS is fortunate the school didn’t go broke paying for all of them.

“This is going to be the most steaks we have ever cooked,” Fitzhugh told The Ouachita Citizen before the dinner in the summer. “This is one of the best summers I can remember us having as far as the kids getting up here and working in the weight room. I came in at 8:30 the other morning, an hour into the workout, and could hear the noise as soon as I opened the door. The enthusiasm has been great.”

And it was obviously infectious.

The Eagles coaching staff asked their players to showcase faith, grit and toughness. Coincidentally, the coaches didn’t ask the players to do anything they wouldn’t. And they got to prove that in the offseason when the select schools created a little more separation with non-select schools by electing to play state championships at neutral sites away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. You know, so they could control the profit they make on state championships.

From the moment the select schools voted to do so (last January), Fitzhugh fought for a sliver of hope that OCS could play in the Superdome. Immediately after the select schools voted to split the football championship sites, Fitzhugh didn’t mince words.

“It’s dream stealing,” Steven Fitzhugh told The Ouachita Citizen in January. “I’ve been here 25 years, and I’ve been blessed to play in the Superdome six times. It is special every single time.”

And it’s been well documented over the last few weeks that Fitzhugh refused to sign over his right to host and sent multiple requests to the LHSAA, letting them know that should OCS be the highest seed remaining, the Eagles wanted to play their state championship game in the Superdome.

I’m sure a lot of the select schools that voted in favor of leaving the Superdome wondered why. After all, it doesn’t make a lot of “cents.” But this decision was never about money for OCS because that’s not what amateur athletics are about to begin with. It’s about proving you’re the best on the biggest stage and offering these kids a memory that’ll last a lifetime.

That’s why Steven Fitzhugh took his team to the Superdome last year before that vote ever took place. After a crushing loss to Southern Lab, he wanted his players to see what they would play for in 2019. And his son Will Fitzhugh knew better than most.

Steven Fitzhugh said he could still remember the first time he ran into his son after the vote took place. “Is it true, Dad?” Will asked in the hall.

Steven Fitzhugh fought hard to get his Eagles to the Superdome, and because the top four seeds lost and the LHSAA approved his request, his hard work paid off. Just like his players’ hard work in the summer.  

The amount of hurdles OCS leapt over to just get to the Superdome proved that it was the Eagles’ destiny to win this state championship. OCS had its faith rewarded in 2019, and honestly, it couldn’t have happened to a better staff or group of kids.    

Award-winning sports writer for columns and features since joining the field in 2013. As the first-ever featured columnist of the month at Bleacher Report, Martin cut his teeth with online media before joining the newspaper business in 2014.

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