OAK HILL — The opening of Oak Hill’s Davis Stadium marked the end of one building project.
It also dawned the beginning of another.
That being the building process of the Oak Hill High School football team, which enters its second season under head coach Greg Phillips.
And, after a 3-7 record in Phillips’ first fall, perhaps the Oaks are ready for the next phase in their reconstruction.
That being challenging for the Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship and a berth in the Division V, Region 19 state playoffs.
Of course, Phillips said that is indeed the goal for his still youthful club. Oak Hill sports just eight seniors, as a massive 20 freshmen are listed on the varsity roster. There are also six sophomores while the rest are juniors.
Still, as Phillips said, “possible dreams are only impossible if all you do is dream.”
“I want to go to the playoffs. I want to go to the state championship game. Those are the lofty dreams that you have to have,” he said. “Along the way, you win SOC championships to get there, you have winning records to get there. Our goal is to win 10 games. If we don’t win 10 games, so be it. But that’s what our goal is and we’re going to strive for it.”
Speaking of strides, Phillips spoke of the strides the Oaks have made in overall team strength.
“I think the biggest strides we’ve made is in our strength levels. We were in pretty good shape, but we weren’t very strong. This year, we are much, much stronger man-for-man all the way down,” he said. “We’ve had great weight room attendance this year. Not only does it give you better performance as far as playing on the field, but the kids are more confident when they’re stronger. They’re not getting pushed around.”
And, the Oaks are no longer a pushover. After a winless season two years ago, the Oaks opened Davis Stadium in style last Sept. 2. They snapped a 12-game losing streak by stopping Southeastern 21-12, en route to two more triumphs and a 2-2 mark in the SOC I.
The Oaks nearly knocked off Sciotoville East, which won the division title and handed Oak Hill a heartbreaking 13-12 loss.
“There were some people that were happy we went 3-7 last year, we won the opening game in the new stadium, things like that,” said Phillips. “I can’t say I was disappointed, because at times the kids did a really good job and we got better.”
This year, the overall numbers have increased significantly, jumping to 44 which is up by 15.
Twelve letterwinners return, including seven starters for the spread wing-T offense and five for the 4-4 base defense.
However, expect this year’s Oaks to be a team of rotations. Phillips said during Oak Hill’s media day that he has no projected starting lineup as of yet.
“We’re rotating a lot of players,” said the coach. “We’ve got four inside linebackers that are rotating every two or three plays. The quarterbacks are rotating every four plays. With the increased numbers, we’re not even close on naming starters right now. We’ve got a lot more competition as opposed to last year where our numbers were down and things were settled.”
Phillips did, though, detail who is battling for those starting spots. Sophomore Luke Stapleton and junior Payton Jenkins are working out at center, senior Zach Parker and junior Andy Roof are in at guard and junior Cody Cannon returns at tackle.
Cannon, according to Phillips, has been injured and “is not completely cleared yet by the doctor for full contact.”
When he does return, Cannon and his brother – freshman Drew Cannon – are “in the mix for a tackle position.”
Among the returning receivers are senior Ian Hall and junior J.D. Hale. Throwing to them are senior quarterback Chase Allman and freshman signal-caller Jesse Slone, both pocket-passing type throwers.
“Offensively, we’re moving away from the option a little bit because we really don’t think we have option quarterbacks. We have more depth than we did last year, even though there are still a couple of spots where we’re a little thin,” said Phillips. “We also have more interchangeability at three or four positions than we did last year.”
The interchangeability continues on the defensive side, as Phillips said Andy and R.P. Roof are rotating with junior Pete Fisher and freshman Troy Bailey at linebacker. Freshman Westen Hale appears settled at safety, as senior Bobby Kidd is moving from outside linebacker to corner.
Kidd and Cody Cannon were all-SOC I second-team choices.
While experience does exist for the Oaks, expect Phillips to play plenty of freshmen on both sides of the football.
“We’ve got anywhere from three to four freshmen rotating in full time,” he said.
Full-time returning starters include senior tackle Jeremy Circle, a three-year starting lineman. Kidd returns in the backfield along with seniors Michael Kuhn and Donnie Carr and juniors Fisher and Chris Dupree.
Dupree earned Division V Honorable Mention all-district last season, as well as first-team all-SOC I.
“We’ve got experience in spots,” said Phillips. “We’ve got juniors and seniors who have played and started since they were freshmen and sophomores.”
Phillips added that returning experience will aid the Oaks in overcoming mistakes, which cost the team a win or two last year. In several of Oak Hill’s losses, drive-killing turnovers, silly penalties and missed tackles were the downfalls.
“Two years in the system, the kids know a lot more, they know what to do and where to line up,” said Phillips. “And just getting more repetitions… that is how you get better.”
And, by playing good competition.
The small-school Oaks remain a Division V program, missing the Division VI classification by the Ohio High School Athletic Association by a mere three boys.
“If four kids move out of our school, we’re Division VI,” said Phillips. “Likewise, if we get 10 boys move in…that’s something we can’t control.”
Oak Hill opens at home with Division IV Meigs, and also faces Division IV foes Rock Hill and Scioto Northwest.
Lucasville Valley is Division V while the other four SOC I clubs – Symmes Valley, Notre Dame, Sciotoville East and Green – are Division VI.
South Gallia, a Division VI playoff qualifier the past two seasons, also dots the Oaks’ schedule.
“We have a tough schedule, but it’s a good challenge for us,” said Phillips. “You have to play a good schedule to prepare yourself and to get better. You can’t play a lot of teams that aren’t real good and expect your team to get better.”
However, on paper, expect the Oaks to be better – and continue the building process that began last season.
“We kind of put last year to itself, and now it’s this year’s team,” said Phillips.
Masters for mentors
Phillips landed the Oak Hill head coaching job after 20 years as an assistant, including stops in both Jackson and his alma mater of Wellston.
His varsity staff also has years of coaching experience – over 100 years combined.
That staff returns intact, and includes longtime mentors Paul Blankenship and Dennis Reinhart.
Blankenship has twice been a head coach at Wellston and was also an assistant at Jackson. Reinhart was an assistant at Jackson for 26 years before joining Phillips last fall.
Dave Humphreys, another former Jackson assistant, is back with Phillips for a second season.
Phillips has a strong background as a defensive coordinator, while Reinhart and Humphreys are most responsible for the offense. Reinhart coaches the offensive line and outside linebackers while Humphreys handles the offensive and defensive backs.
The other two varsity assistants – Chris Delaney and Jeff Allen – are Oak Hill graduates. Delaney directs the defensive ends and Allen the defensive tackles and wide receivers.
Phillips discussed the transition that was two decades in the making.
“The biggest change for me was going from a position coach and/or coordinator to actually managing the whole program. The easy part was having an experienced coaching staff. I knew those guys could handle their jobs,” he explained. “And I have them all back which makes me happy. They know what to do and they do it. It makes it a lot easier on me.”