By Tucker Colburn
Daily Times Leader
The players and fans of Oak Hill Academy could not have asked for more perfect conditions during Friday’s game against Winston Academy. An almost cloudless sky, 88 degrees and no wind. The stands were a sea of red as the Oak Hill fans wore their Raiders t-shirts with “We Believe” emblazoned on the back.
Early on, it seemed that the Winston Academy no-huddle offense would prove hard to stop, but the Raiders’ defense stepped it up, forcing a punt on the very first drive. On offense, it looked like Oak Hill was playing against a wall of white, at first. Yet, with 5:04 left on the clock in the first quarter, Oak Hill scored the first of its twenty-seven points of the night with a drive into the endzone by Drake Riley.
The second quarter showed a surge in the Raiders’ energy; they kept pushing Winston, making them work for every yard. But, Winston Academy had its answer to a 7-0 first quarter when Oak Hill was forced to punt early in the second, returning it for an 80-yard touchdown, tying the game.
Not to be outdone, as the Patriots kicked off after their first score of the night, the Raiders’ own Drew Riley returned the for a 75-yard run to the endzone, making the score 14-7.
Five minutes later, the Patriots, having earned good field position, the Raiders made an attempt to stop Winston inside the five yard line, but the Patriots drove it in, tying the game again.
With time left on the clock for one more drive, Oak Hill attempted to bring the first half of the game to a close with seven more points on the board but just couldn’t get close enough to the endzone. A missed field goal attempt, actually ringing off the goal post, kept the game tied at half time, with Oak Hill receiving at the start of the third quarter.
The second half started with Winston making gain after gain until about a third of the way through the quarter, they fumbled and Oak Hill recovered. In the final two minutes of the quarter, Samuel Harrell caught a touchdown pass thrown by quarterback Conner Baird, making the score 21-14.
After this third touchdown, Coach Daniel Merchant made a bold move calling for an onside kick, which was easily recovered by Jeb Stevens. In fact, no one was around when he picked up the ball. The effort after that was valiant, but ultimately, after a low snap which resulted in the loss of fifteen yards, the Raiders were forced to punt the ball away as the third quarter came to a close.
The clock reset, showing the final twelve minutes of play. Coach Merchant seemed to be keeping great composure, and his players appeared excited yet reverent.
An outstanding punt from Paxton Trull left Winston Academy with almost no field position in their first bit possession of the quarter, bouncing out of bounds on the five yard line. Predictably, the drive that followed barely led the Patriots out of their own red zone, forcing a twenty-yard punt, which gave Oak Hill great field position.
While 6:32 on the clock, time whittling away, twenty-one points in the bank against the Patriots’ fourteen, and on fourth and inches, the safe move might have been to kick a field goal, having brought the line of scrimmage close enough to do so, but Coach Merchant’s team was bold, and they decided to attempt converting to first down. Their gamble paid off.
Within minutes, Oak Hill was slowly advancing the ball down the field. All that needed to be done was to burn time, but on third and five on the eighteen, and with 2:35 left in the game, the ball was handed to Jeb Stevens, who ran it in to make it a 27-14 ball game.
The seconds ticked away, and with a healthy thirteen-point lead over their opponents, the Raiders may have started celebrating a little too early as within thirty seconds of possession, Winston was able to get a drive going that would lead to their third and final touchdown of the night, making the score 27-21, and only 40 seconds left on the clock.
Winston Academy attempted an onside kick, but the Raiders recovered the ball easily on the 50-yard line. So, with the final score on the board, the Raiders celebrated their victory, first by pouring a bucket of ice on the coach, and then by celebrating on the 40-yard line.
All night, it seemed, the Winston Academy Patriots were flagged for one reason or another. Among the calls against them were three for holding and two for unsportsman-like conduct. But, with so much riding on this game, spirits were bound to run high.
All in all, Friday night saw a very clean game of football. Coach Merchant said of his team after moments after the game, “It was a team effort, just like last week. These kids have been working hard, and it’s paid off. We got a tough one next week against Indianola, so we have to come back in Monday and regroup.”
The Raiders haven’t trailed in eight quarters of football, and more proud of his team Coach Merchant could not be. With this first win in a district game, the team is one step closer to the playoffs. Now that Oak Hill Academy has a victory on their home turf, and especially against their rival, Raider football is on the road to what promises to be a great season.