The year 2020 offered many firsts for Steven Fitzhugh in a coaching career that spans three decades. For a coach who had Ouachita Christian's field named after him during his 22nd season as head coach in 2019 — No. 22 happens to be his old number and the number his sons wore at OCS — one might’ve thought Fitzhugh had seen it all here in Northeast Louisiana. Well, that might have been the case before a pandemic hit.
That pandemic, by the way, introduced many firsts in Fitzhugh’s career:
— First time no team camps were held
— First time junior varsity and freshman practiced on one side of the field while the varsity practiced on the other
— First time the team took three busses to games to keep everyone divided
— First time players did not wear practice pants all year long (Fitzhugh thought that was a minor deal since players would practice and play games without knee pads frequently.)
— First-ever Junior Varsity Super Bowl replaces Homecoming Game
— First time in school history OCS, as a 1A school, defeated a 5A school
— First time a playoff opponent forfeited a contest
— First overtime victory
— First time to practice during Christmas holidays
— First time a player (Hunter Herring) had signing day on the football field and played a game after completing high school
— First practice on a Saturday and Sunday
— First time to play a state championship away from the Superdome
— First varsity game on a Tuesday
“Our theme stay the course was perfect for this year,” Fitzhugh said. “Whatever challenge came our way, we just keep plugging…
“I really feel like (the players) cherished every single day because in August we didn’t know if we’d get to play. We got to play. We were thankful, and we told them, ‘Cherish every day.’ I remember playing St. Frederick on Thursday night telling them to play this like it was your last game because cases were going up. ‘Guys we don’t know. Let’s play and have fun.' And I can honestly say our guys did that… There’s no pressure when you’re having fun.”
The Eagles fell short of repeating as state champions, but OCS made a return trip to the Division IV State Championship Game in 2020. Through the twists and turns the 2020 football season provided, OCS challenging for another state championship remained a constant. The Eagles did not lose focus on their climb back to the mountaintop, which is one of the many reasons why Fitzhugh took home back-to-back Ouachita Citizen Coach of the Year honors.
“It was one of the most fun seasons we’ve been a part of in the sense we got to spend more time together than any other football team ever here,” said Fitzhugh, who has more than 200 wins and five state championships on his résumé. “It was special.”
The season started with a bang. The Eagles put it on a 3A Jena team that went on to win seven games. The Eagles’ 49-28 victory in the season opener was followed up by three straight lopsided district wins before OCS fell in its annual grudge match against Oak Grove. The Eagles responded with a five-game win streak that took them to the state championship game.
During that streak, OCS scheduled a short-notice contest against Denham Springs. The 5A Yellowjackets had just one win to their name in 2020, but after observing the film, Fitzhugh was concerned about scheduling a game against a 5A club that had single-digit losses to teams like Central and Live Oak.
“I told (offensive coordinator) Drew (Vidrine) he might have to score 70 that night, and I guess I should have told him that when we played Calvary Baptist too,” Fitzhugh said. “That Denham Springs game, though, that was the best game our defense played all year. They had three sophomores, a quarterback, running back and receiver that were all phenomenal. I went into that game thinking this could be a shootout big time. Our guys made the plays that night. We treated it like a playoff game. ‘Let’s go on the road with nothing to lose and everything to gain.’ It helped us jump to the No. 3 seed and got us into playoff mode.”
The Eagles’ 47-21 win over Denham Springs preceded Hamilton Christian forfeiting the first-round playoff game due to COVID-19. OCS took an extra week to prepare for Metairie Park Country Day, and it showed in a 34-14 victory. That set the stage for the most memorable game of the 2020 season, a 36-34 overtime victory against Vermilion Catholic.
“It would be hard to rank games (in my career) because this VC game, it has be one of the best ever,” Fitzhugh said. “It’s a semifinal game to take you to the championship, and it’s an overtime game. I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘OK Aidan Ham is our captain. I have to send him back out there. I hope he doesn’t ask me when the last time we went to overtime was.' We’ve only gone to overtime once since I’ve been here, and that was in 1999 against Jonesboro-Hodge. And they beat us.”
A back-and-forth affair on the road ended with OCS forcing an incomplete pass on a 2-point try in the first overtime.
“After we scored in overtime, I’m thinking, ‘Let’s go for two right now,’” Fitzhugh said. “Either we do it or we don’t. The offensive line got the push on that 2-point conversion (Dillon) Dougan got. When the ball hit the ground in overtime, it was such an exciting victory because they were an outstanding team. Definitely one of the most exciting wins ever.”
Unfortunately the season culminated with a 62-41 loss to Calvary Baptist in the state title game. The hardest part for Fitzhugh was seeing every player go their separate way after what’s hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime season. That’s always the hard part for Fitzhugh, though.
“Whether you win or lose in your final game, you spend so much time together that you just hate it’s over,” Fitzhugh said.
Throughout the season players like Casey Cobb (defensive line), Van David Matherne (late bloomer on defense) and Henry Messinger (first-year linebacker) emerged as crucial contributors, while returning players on offense like Hunter Herring (quarterback), Dillon Dougan (running back), Tristan Wiley (receiver), Landon Graves (athlete) and Andy Weatherford (center) ran the offense as smoothly as one could hope.
But while many may deem some of the “firsts” in 2020 as negatives, there were certainly positives to come out of a football season during an unforgettable pandemic. One of those involved turning a negative situation into a positive.
After Fitzhugh unsuccessfully called 10 different coaches to try and schedule a homecoming game on less than 24 hours notice, OCS decided to get innovative and hold a junior varsity winner-take-all game, of sorts, after the two teams split games against each other earlier in the year.
That way the Homecoming festivities could go on like normal, while teammates battled it out and coaches officiated. Fitzhugh, though, got to simply be dad, as his daughter, Ellie Kate Fitzhugh, served as a sophomore maid. The coaching duties were left to others…
“It was actually Hunter who made the comment, ‘Hey, if we’re going to have this super bowl for JV players can juniors coach a team and seniors coach the other?’” Fitzhugh recalled. “I said, 'That's a great idea.' They loved it. They had a blast calling plays. That’s just making the best of a bad situation. Rather than our upperclassmen pouting that they weren’t getting to play, they got out there and coached. It was fun because I had one of my juniors come up to me after the game, ‘Coach, I don’t know how y’all do it cause I called a play and they didn’t do it right…’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds familiar.’”
OCS “stayed the course” during perhaps the most unconventional football season coaches, players and fans have ever seen. With a 9-2 record, Fitzhugh and his players took the time to seize the day.
In the process, Fitzhugh continued to garner respect from his coaching peers across Louisiana with yet another run at a state championship. Records and hardware are what they are for Fitzhugh, though.
“It’s not about me,” Fitzhugh said. “I didn’t get in coaching for me. I got into coaching because of the coaches that impacted my life. This is my 27th year at OCS, and I’m thankful the Lord has blessed me to be here for a long time.”