WALES — From the outside, the Oak Hill football team’s season seemed to be falling apart. The Raiders won two of their first three games, then lost four of their next five, slipping down spot after spot in the Class D South standings.
From the outside, it seemed like a good time to panic. Inside the Oak Hill locker room, however, there was a different sentiment.
“We believed in ourselves,” sophomore quarterback Gavin Rawstron said. “We lost a few games, (but) they’ve been tight. We knew we were there.”
In the weeks since, all the Raiders have done is back that up. Seventh seed Oak Hill (5-5) is on a ride as D South’s Cinderella, knocking off No. 2 Lisbon in the quarterfinals, 6-0, and then No. 6 Madison, 34-33, in the semifinals to set up a showdown with No. 1 and undefeated Wells (10-0) for a berth in the state championship game.
“We’ll try to slay the giant,” coach Stacen Doucette said.
But how did the Raiders get that chance? How did a team that was never really in the mix for home field make its way through as competitive a field as there was in the state? When exactly did the big swing in confidence and momentum occur?
According to the Raiders, there wasn’t one. There didn’t need to be.
“I don’t think there really was a point where things turned around,” senior center and linebacker Ethan Richard said. “I think things just started going the right way. We lost a lot of games by less than a touchdown, and, I don’t know how to explain it. We just figured it out.”
Indeed, even as the Raiders were on their way to a 3-5 mark, there were signs that the record was misleading. They lost to Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale by two points. They led Madison late in the second half before losing 47-34. They lost to Spruce Mountain by two, and were battling Lisbon late before falling off the pace in a 47-27 loss.
The record was getting worse, but the Raiders knew they were on the verge of a breakthrough.
“Most of our losses, except the one, were pretty close games,” Richard said. “So I think seeing that kept the confidence level up.”
Even “the one” had a positive impact. Oak Hill lost 56-13 to Wells, but in the second quarter was tied 13-13 with the class’s overwhelming favorite.
“I feel like we kept up with them the first two quarters,” junior tackle Kyle Stilkey said. “The second half wasn’t great, but that was a real turning point, where we could hold our weight with the big dogs.”
“That first drive against Wells, when we drove right down the field,” senior guard Isaac Austin added. “That was nuts.”
Even the lowlights from that game served as a learning experience for a team that has had sophomores and freshmen going in and out of the lineup all season.
“It was the first time our sophomores kind of got punched in the face a little, and they didn’t react well,” Doucette said. “When things went down, they went really down. But since then, we’ve talked about getting better each week.”
And the Raiders have, even if the record wasn’t showing it. The team’s gotten healthier. The lines have stabilized, both on offense and defense. Rawstron has developed into one of the class’s most dangerous dual threats, racking up over 2,500 yards of total offense. Those freshmen and sophomores have gotten used to communicating and playing at the varsity pace, allowing Doucette to employ a no-huddle offense and sub in and out for any given situation. Richard and Rawstron are the only players that never leave the field on offense.
“I always tell the kids, we have a toolbox,” Doucette said. “We have a lot of different tools in that toolbox. We try to use all of them for their strengths, and it’s actually helped.”
As the season progressed, the players could see the mix working. Close losses can lead to frustration and self-doubt, but if anything, one tight game after another was giving the Raiders more and more life.
“We know what we have. We’re a good team here,” Rawstron said. “We all believe in ourselves, believe in our coaches. We knew we had a lot of potential.”
Still, even the players were surprised to see everything click in time for the playoffs. One week after losing to Lisbon, the Raiders stood on a muddy Thompson Field, in a scoreless tie with the Greyhounds, only one play away from scoring the tournament’s biggest upset.
“The fourth quarter … I kind of looked around, looked at the scoreboard, and realized we were still tied with them,” Richard said. “Everybody’s like ‘Well, if we win this game, next week we’ll have nothing to lose. And if we win then, we’ll have nothing to lose the week after.’ … People realized football’s going to be over soon, no matter what happens. Why not make it last a little longer?”
Later, in overtime, Rawstron scored and Oak Hill held on defense to seal the upset. One week later, the game again went to overtime, Rawstron again scored, and Oak Hill denied Madison on the 2-point try to wrap up a second straight upset.
Surprised as the Raiders might be with their run, they haven’t been surprised by how they’ve accomplished it — by playing their best football in the biggest moments.
“I think it’s how hard we work in practice, and how hard that man right there works us every day,” Austin said, pointing to Doucette. “He’s great, he coaches us hard, we practice hard. They always say the fourth quarter’s heart, and we carry that into overtime.”
Now they need to carry it through one more game. It won’t be easy.
But the Raiders aren’t about to count themselves out now.
“There’s not a lot of pressure on us,” Rawstron said. “We’re going into this a No. 7 seed against a 1. If they lose, everyone looks on them, ‘We upset the best team in Class D.’ But if we lose, everyone predicted Wells to win. So everyone’s just playing their hearts out.”
Oak Hill sophomore quarterback Gavin Rawstron has piled up over 2,500 yards of total offense this season and is one of the reasons the Raiders are playing Wells in the Class D South final on Friday night.
Oak Hill’s Ethan Richard, left, and Samuel Lindsay, right, knock facemasks as they sandwitch Poland quarterback Isaiah Hill in the backfield for a loss during the first half of Saturday’s football game in Wales. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)