Oak Hill sets sights on Southern Ohio Conference I title, playoffs


Oak Hill Oaks

With a youthful yet veteran team returning, spearheaded by half of the squad consisting of sophomores, expectations are high in Oak Hill for its best season in the past several.

OAK HILL — Like fine wine, the Oak Hill High School football team is getting better with age.

Still, will the third year in the sparkling Davis Stadium — and the third year for head coach Greg Phillips — be the charm in which the Oaks capture the Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship and advance to the Division V, Region 19 playoffs?

With a youthful yet veteran team returning, spearheaded by half of the squad consisting of sophomores, expectations are high in Oak Hill for its best season in the past several.

Phillips admits that the players, coaches and community are anticipating bright nights under the Davis Stadium lights.

“There should be optimism,” said Phillips. “Everyone talks about pressure to win, but there is nobody that puts more pressure on me than me. I expect to win every time we take the field. We have a good mix of players, but we still have a young team with 20 of our kids as sophomores even though they have a year of experience under their belts. Still, the expectations are there to win. The kids expect to win, I know the coaches and I expect to win, and that’s what we want to get to. When we walk out on the field, we want to have the attitude that we’ve worked hard and we expect to win.”

Oak Hill has come a long way since Phillips took over a winless team from three years ago.

The Oaks improved to 3-7 in his first season, then raised their record to an even 5-5 last campaign.

“We have obviously made improvements if you look at the record,” said Phillips. “But I’m not sure you improve as much as you want to. In our first two years here, we thought we should have won one or two more games. But overall, I think we have improved. The kids have bought more into the program, our lifting attendance in the summer has been better, our overall attitude and work ethic has been better. We don’t have to worry about getting in shape, or making sure everyone is at practice and on time. Those are little things that we don’t have to worry about anymore. The kids are doing their part of what they have to do. I don’t want to say it’s getting easier, but it’s getting easier to actually coach football.”

In both of Oak Hill’s first two seasons in the SOC I, the Oaks were an even 2-2, as Sciotoville East is the two-time defending division champion.

However, Phillips said his Oaks hope to prevent an East three-peat, and instead take the title for themselves.

Oak Hill returns 16 letterwinners and 13 total starters, most of which are either seniors or sophomores on the squad.

Of the 41 Oaks on this year’s roster, 20 are sophomores with a dozen more seniors.

Several seniors have started since they were sophomores, as did several sophomores last fall as freshmen.

One of those is quarterback Jesse Slone, who threw for 1,532 yards on 112-of-182 attempts.

Slone also had 13 touchdowns against only three interceptions.

“Jesse had a good year as a freshman, and over the winter, he’s put on some weight and had a good year in the weight room,” said Phillips of Slone. “He was a freshman who came in and lit it up for 230 yards and two or three touchdown passes in his first game en route to 1,500 yards total. But he doesn’t look at what he did last year. Last year is last year to him. He looks at what he wants to do this year. He’s worked as hard as anybody on the football team. Last year didn’t have any phase on his work ethic this year. He still has things to improve on, such as reads and consistency with his mechanics.”

Several of his top targets also return, including fellow sophomores Joey Maynard and Westen Hale and seniors Chris Dupree, Pete Fisher and J.D. Hale.

Each of those five had at least 12 receptions last season and 120 receiving yards, including Maynard with 19 catches and 214 yards.

J.D. Hale (14 catches for 415 yards), lining up both tight and wide, averaged 30 yards a reception and scored four touchdowns.

“J.D. is catching the ball real well, and we’ll split him out some as well,” said Phillips. “He’s six-foot-six and up to 225 pounds now. He is bigger and stronger and a better run-blocker. He’s not blazing fast, but that’s a big target to throw the ball to, especially with him out there matched up against a 5-7, 5-8, 160-pound cornerback.”

Slone, Fisher and J.D. Hale all earned Division V Special Mention all-district honors.

Like last season, Phillips expects to utilize depth by rotating his backs and receivers.

Dupree, Fisher and Westen Hale are back as the halfbacks, with Maynard and J.D. Hale among the returning wideouts.

The Oaks operate out of the spread wing-T on offense, with many of the carries and catches distributed evenly.

Fisher (82 carries for 592 yards and seven touchdowns and 12 catches for 120 yards) was the team’s leading rusher, followed closely by Dupree (72 carries for 404 yards and six touchdowns and 12 catches for 138 yards) and Westen Hale (51 carries for 337 yards and three touchdowns and 15 catches for 132 yards).

The fullbacks include senior Devan Smith, sophomore Cory Kuhn and freshman Daniel Woods.

The depth allows Dupree to move from fullback to halfback full-time.

“We’re trying to create some depth, which is a good problem to have,” said Phillips. “With the three halfbacks — Chris Dupree, Justin Fisher and Westen Hale — we feel like we don’t have any letdown no matter who is in there. Then we have four wide receivers who can catch the ball and run good routes. With our backs and receivers, we have a real good mix of size and speed. They are very interchangeable.”

The line, though, is not as deep, Phillips explained.

Senior Cody Hale has been working at center along with junior Luke Stapleton and freshman Chris Fairchild at guard.

Senior Joel Eisnaugle, a transfer from Wellston, will be one tackle along with fellow senior Payton Jenkins.

“Those five are pretty much there,” said Phillips. “We’re just concerned about depth.”

Senior Cody Cannon, who played tackle last season, has assisted at tight end as a backup for J.D. Hale.

Phillips said Cannon has doubled with his tackle position, just as Jenkins is at his former position of center.

Cannon’s younger brother — sophomore Drew Cannon — was this year’s projected center, but may miss the entire season due to the effects of a broken leg suffered in March.

“Losing Drew hurt us big time,” said Phillips. “He had always played center-quarterback with Jesse, but him being hurt caused us to shuffle some people around.”

Last season, Fisher, Westen Hale and Bobby Kidd rotated at halfback, as Kidd graduated as a first-team all-district all-purpose player (60 carries for 274 yards and three touchdowns and 21 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns).

This season, Fisher and Hale are the two inside linebackers in the Oaks’ 4-4 defensive set.

Maynard moves back to free safety, replacing Hale at that position.

Phillips said the switch “improves team speed.”

“We felt that right away,” he said. “Our two starting inside linebackers and free safety are three of the fastest guys on the team.”

Eisnaugle takes over at tackle, as Jenkins and Stapleton have been rotating as well.

J.D. Hale and Cody Cannon are the defensive ends.

The coach explained the Oaks’ “luxury” of “size up front, and speed behind that size.”

“That is something, on defense, that we haven’t had in years past,” said Phillips. “We have five or six guys on the team that can run to the ball pretty well. If we get some help up front….we’re real pleased with what we’ve seen defensively.”

Seniors Zach Haislop and Brandon Carter add speed as the cornerbacks.

Phillips said Haislop, who did not play last season, is “probably the fastest guy on the team.”

Although, from the time Phillips and his staff took over, overall team strength has been “one of the single biggest improvements that we’ve made.”

“Our strength has really gone up from the time we came here in the spring two years ago,” said Phillips. “I was really worried about how strong our team was then. I was like ‘oh my.’ But the kids have really worked hard and the administration has really helped us. We have an advanced physical education class where all athletes in the school get to lift during the day.”

Speaking of strength, the Oaks face another strong schedule, including a three-of-four-game stretch where they travel to Rock Hill, Minford and Sciotoville East.

Minford returns to the schedule after a two-year hiatus, as the season openers with visiting Chesapeake and River Valley are new opponents as well.

Rock Hill, Scioto Northwest and South Gallia all return as non-league foes.

Phillips discussed the difficulty of the Division IV and V level slate, as well as the beast of Sciotoville East in the small-school SOC I.

“My idea is the team that won the league is the champs until someone beats them,” he said of the Tartans.

Oak Hill is the only Division V team in the SOC I, as the other four clubs are all Division VI.

“Our schedule doesn’t get any easier, but at the same time, our goal here is to win a league championship and go to the playoffs,” said Phillips. “For us to do that, you have to play quality teams and beat quality teams. Our schedule is good enough, if we hold up our end of the bargain, we’ll see what happens later in the year.”

But, in order to conquer the conference, as well as qualify for the postseason, the Oaks must overcome some of the mental mistakes that have plagued them in the past.

Such as critical turnovers and silly penalties.

Those mistakes cost the Oaks a contest or two last season.

“We did that, and sometimes you can make that excuse it’s young kids. But at some point in time, you have to forgot that moniker,” said Phillips. “We keep stressing, and one of our goals is, no critical penalties on offense or defense. And obviously, we stress no turnovers. So far in practice, our ball possession has been good and doing stupid things has not happened. That comes with some of your maturity and your attention to detail. Those mistakes hurt us at times last year, but hopefully, we can clean that up this year.”

For this year, the expectations are nothing short of a special season.

“I’m not going to accept anything less,” said Phillips. “Our expectations are to win the league, win 10 games and go to the playoffs. If we don’t expect to do that, then who do we plan on losing to? If we’re going to plan on losing three games, then let’s not even go play those three games. Our goal is to win every game and our expectations are that. That’s what we work for. There’s no pressure any greater than what myself or the coaches themselves put on ourselves to win. But we’re at a point now where our kids expect to win. Not that we’re overconfident, but that the kids believe they can win. They know they have to do a lot more than just show up, they know they have to play hard. But if they play hard and play well, they have a good chance of winning.”

Special teams needs

Perhaps Phillips has put out a “Help Wanted” ad in regards to his team’s special teams.

“We’ve been working special teams right now every day,” said Phillips. “We’re looking for long snappers, kickers and punters and stuff like that. That was one luxury we had our first two years.”

That’s because the Oaks graduated four key special teams performers — Kidd, Ian Hall, Chase Allman and R.P. Roof.

Kidd was the team’s punter, Hall the long snapper, Allman the short snapper and Roof the placekicker.

“Bobby punted the daylights out of the ball, and sometimes he was too good where he outkicked our coverage. Ian Hall had one bad long snap all season. I can’t remember a bad snap Chase Allman had on an extra point or field goal, and R.P. Roof was all-district first team as a kicker.”

Phillips said the Oaks are “auditioning snappers and kickers every single day.”

“You lose games that way (special teams), and we plan on not doing that,” he said.

Same solid staff

It’s a new season, but it’s the same solid and experienced coaching staff for the Oaks.

Phillips is being assisted this season by Dennis Reinhart, Paul Blankenship, Dave Humphreys and Jeffrey Allen.

Phillips, Reinhart, Blankenship and Humphreys are in their third year together at Oak Hill after serving on a successful staff at Jackson High School.

Allen is an Oak Hill graduate and is also in his third year on Phillips’ staff.

“I’ve got a really good coaching staff and you’ve always heard coaches say that they wouldn’t trade them (current assistant coaches),” said Phillips. “We’ve got a lot of experience. I think Coach Reinhart did some adding up, and counting our five varsity coaches, we have something like 109 years combined experience. I really like the coaches we have and the way our guys work for the kids. And I think the kids know we’re here for them. They have bought into it, and I couldn’t be any more happier than the way the kids have worked and responded to what the coaches are trying to do for them.”

Phillips was a 20-year assistant before getting the head coaching job at Oak Hill.

Reinhart had over 20 years experience at Jackson, and Blankenship has over 30 years experience between such schools as Jackson, Wellston and South Point.

This past summer, Blankenship was the head coach of the Huntington Heroes indoor arena professional team.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *