2019 Record: 13-1
Quote of the summer: “We know just because we won a championship that teams aren’t going to bow down to us. We know people are going to come after us.” — Hunter Herring, OCS quarterback
Overview: Ouachita Christian returns seven starters from an offensive juggernaut, which set the Superdome Classic single-game scoring record with a 67-22 shellacking of Catholic-Pointe Coupee in the state championship game.
In other words, the Eagles should only be better this season, which is bad news for the remainder of Division IV.
Questions abound on the defensive side with only two holdovers in place.
After losing three games in the closing moments in 2018, the Eagles adopted the theme, “Finish Strong,” for 2019. And, did they ever.
This year’s motto is “Stay the Course.”
Assuming the inexperienced defense can show weekly improvement — remember, it’s not like they will need to pitch a shutout every game — the Eagles have to be considered among the short list of contenders as they pursue their seventh state title in school history.
Offense: Besides averaging 47 points and nearly 400 yards of total offense per game, the Eagles committed only nine turnovers (four fumbles, five interceptions) the entire season. Remarkably, the Eagles hit their peak in the playoffs with four sophomores paving the way up front.
Left guard Casey Cobb, center Andy Weatherford and right guard James David Miller were full-time starters. Avery Pillgreen, who filled in at right tackle for the majority of the playoff run, has assumed the left tackle post vacated by All-State selection Grant Mashaw. Senior right tackle Michael Estep is the lone newcomer of the bunch.
“I feel like one of the strengths of our offense will be the line,” coach Steven Fitzhugh said. “We had four sophomores out there for most of the playoffs, and Michael was able to get some experience last year.”
Two of the top three receivers graduated, but the tank is hardly empty.
Averaging 21 yards per reception, junior Tristan Wiley caught a team-high 33 passes for 693 yards and eight touchdowns. His breakout game came in Week 7 as he snagged six passes for 162 yards, highlighted by an 81-yard touchdown, in a 40-21 victory over eventual Class 1A state champion Oak Grove.
Drawing the emergency start at quarterback, Landon Graves contributed to Wiley’s breakout game. Graves (7 receptions, 153 yards, 3 TDs) will start at the other split end.
“Everybody remembers Landon coming in at quarterback in the Oak Grove game, and leading us to victory, but he helped us in so many ways,” Fitzhugh said. “He’s just a dynamic athlete.”
Wiley and Graves have both added about 20 pounds since last season.
Junior Thomas Culp (8-87-3) moves into the starting lineup at flanker after showing promise as a backup last fall.
Seniors Dillon Dougan and Van David Matherne return as the running backs.
After missing the entire 2018 campaign with an injury, Dougan was the team’s second-leading rusher (115 carries, 946 yards, 8 TDs; 8.2 yards per carry).
A receiving threat out of the backfield, Matherne caught seven passes for 105 yards and three scores despite being limited to seven games.
Oh, by the way, the Eagles have a pretty good quarterback.
Former defensive end Hunter Herring accounted for 2,917 yards (1,794 rushing, 1,123 passing) of total offense and 52 touchdowns (27 passing, 25 rushing) in his first year to play quarterback at any level. Among his numerous postseason accolades, Herring was named The Ouachita Citizen’s Offensive Player of the Year and was on the Louisiana Sports Writers Class 1A squad.
Naturally, Herring needed some time to get acclimated to his new position.
“He definitely went into last year playing cautious,” Fitzhugh said. “He let go of the caution during the playoffs, and got better and better each week.”
Junior Samuel Harrell made 57-of-75 extra points last year, and 2-of-5 field goals with a long of 31.
Defense: OCS will open the season at Jena on Friday, Oct. 2 with new starters at all 11 positions.
Cobb, Pillgreen and Miller will pull double duty up front.
OCS must replace all three starting linebackers, including All-State honoree Ethan Hogan. Converted defensive linemen Chris Holyfield and Henry Messinger are joined in the new all-senior trio by Kael Skipper.
“We moved two defensive linemen to linebacker, so now we have to replace two more defensive linemen,” Fitzhugh said.
Holyfield logged 55 tackles, six tackles for loss and a sack as an end. Messinger (11 tackles, 2 TFL) was the starting nose guard before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 4.
Senior Julian Stephenson (26 tackles, 1 INT) and freshman Noah Lovelady are the strong safeties.
Stephenson’s defining moment came on a special teams play in a dramatic 49-47 quarterfinal playoff victory over No. 1 seed Calvary Baptist, a game in which the Eagles rallied from a 33-13 halftime deficit.
Fitzhugh has high expectations for Lovelady for this year and beyond.
Graves (27 tackles, 4 INTs) and Wiley (8 tackles, 1 INT) are the cornerbacks, leaving the Eagles with five projected two-way starters.
Coming off of a solid season as the starting strong safety, senior Aidan Ham (61 tackles, 2 INTs) slides over to free safety where Harding signee Will Fitzhugh earned All-State honors.
While coach Fitzhugh isn’t asking the Eagles to match last year’s incredible plus-34 turnover margin (43 takeaways, 9 giveaways), he is emphasizing the same style of play.
Another focal point is building depth. Carrying a school record 64 players (39 underclassmen, 25 upperclassmen), odds are the Eagles will be able to find some additional help.
“This is the first time we have ever had 60 players in 44 years of OCS football,” Fitzhugh said. “We’ve had 59, but never 60.”
One of OCS’ biggest improvements last season was in the punting game. Graves averaged 34.5 yards on 21 punts. As a team, the Eagles averaged a meager 24.2 yards per kick in 2018.
Special teams snappers are senior John Daniel Thomas and junior Garrett Simmons.
District Outlook: District 2-1A boasts two reigning state champions in OCS and Oak Grove. The Eagles and Tigers remain the teams to beat.