Perhaps never has a team that finished 0-10 come into the next season as optimistic as the Opp Bobcats and head coach Brent Hill.
To say the Bobcats had terrible injury misfortune is a gross understatement.
2018 started bad for the Bobcats and only got worse.
“We had 17 season-ending injuries in the first three weeks,” Hill said at last month’s prep media day sessions, adding there were 27 total season-ending injuries his team endured. “We had to cancel our JV season because the JV essentially was playing on Friday nights. We played two JV games before we had to cancel.”
Quarterback Hal Smithart broke his collarbone in the first half of the first game. His backup was lost four plays later.
It was awful to go through. But the Bobcats have a lot of experienced players eager to get back to winning. There were only four seniors on last year’s team and every one of the injured players is back this season.
That’s why Hill is optimistic Opp will bounce back. It’s a program that had won 21 games in the previous three seasons, including a region championship with a 9-2 record in 2016.
“Last year, I’ve never been through something like that in my life as a coach,” said Hill, who enters his seventh year as a head coach. “But I want to tell you, I’m proud of my boys. We’ve got more kids on our team this year than last year.
“When the season ended, we had our two-week dead period and I didn’t have to beg one of them (to come back out). They were ready to go. That’s fun to coach guys like that. I’m looking forward to this year. If we can stay healthy we can be good.”
Seven starters return on offense and eight are back on defense.
Ashton Patel is a four-year starter who returns at running back.
“He is by far the No. 1 leader on our team,” Hills said. “Just a great kid, loves it, loves the team. Literally, he is a kid that makes his teammates better.
“Great young man. You’re not going to outwork him. He’s going to make good decisions on and off the field. He’s been raised right. He’s a fun kid to coach.”
Smithart, a junior, returns at quarterback.
“Thankfully, he’s healthy, he’s back, he’s working hard,” the head coach said. “A lot of these kids, honestly, we’ll shock people with what we look like. We’re a little bigger, we’re older, we’ve got 60-plus kids on the team this year and only 10 are seniors. Most of our team played as freshmen and sophomores.”
A pair of juniors – 6-foot-5 Erik Matthews and Lane Ballard – return at wide receiver.
“Erik has Division I capability,” Hill said. “Lane, to me, is the kid who keeps it all together. He tells everybody where to go. He’s very quick.”
A pair of senior brothers, receiver Zee Ridgeway and linebacker Zack Ridgeway, both transferred to Opp and are both expected to contribute immediately.
Up front, three offensive linemen are back – seniors Jaylen Stoudemire and Seth Butts and junior Chandler Pyron, who Hill says could play anywhere from tackle to center.
“Jaylen and Seth both are kids that had to play too early. Now they’re seniors,” Hill said. “They were kids that had to play when they were sophomores. What we’ve noticed is we’re not taking as much time to install things because those guys have been here. They’re hard workers and real serious in the weight room.”
The newcomers up front likely will be junior Drake Stanley and sophomore Wyatt Horn, who missed last season with a knee injury.
“Drake played a little bit last year as a backup out of necessity,” Hill said. “He didn’t have a choice. He should have been playing JV. He’s gotten stronger. Wyatt coming back is going to help us.”
The defense has even more experience returning, but that’s where the Bobcats must get the most improvement. Opp surrendered 485 points last season in its 10 games.
Of their eight returning starters, only two are seniors. Stoudemire returns as a defensive lineman and James Cornelius will play linebacker.
“James got hurt in the second game, snapped his leg,” Hill said. “He has worked back really hard and he will hit you.”
Jesse Coon, a junior, is back on the defensive line. Both outside linebackers – Dakota Cornelius and Jaydon Lacey – return.
Ballard returns at a cornerback spot and two starting safeties – Thomas Glisson and Kevin Parreira – also are back.
“They led our team in tackles a year ago,” Hill said. “Kevin broke his leg in the Wicksburg game. Thomas played the whole season banged up and never missed a minute.”
Newcomer Zack Ridgeway likely will start at inside linebacker. Emilio Skanes and Horn will play on the defensive front. Ethan Cox, a sophomore, could win a job in the secondary – either corner, safety or even outside linebacker, Hill said.
Dakota Cornelius has the inside track to handle the kicking and punting duties.
In addition to playing in Class 3A, Region 2, Hill has scheduled four very difficult non-region games. The Bobcats face Flomaton in their jamboree Aug. 23. They open against Elba on Aug. 30, face rival Andalusia on Sept. 27 and finish the regular season against Luverne on Nov. 1.
Hill is eager to show people that the Bobcats will bounce back from 2018.
“There was a lot of pain we went through with the injuries and the losing. It was tough,” the coach said. “But our kids never got down, the community supported us, everybody knew what had happened. Saying that, I do think it led us to where we are now.
“I haven’t had any attitude issues. If we can stay healthy we can get back to being a strong, competitive team that scores a lot of points.”
BOBCATS AT A GLANCE
>> Head coach: Brent Hill (6th year at Opp, 30-26; 8th year as a head coach, 54-31)
>> 2018 record: 0-10 overall, 0-7 in Class 3A, Region 2
>> 2018 results: Elba (L, 33-53); at Straughn # (L, 30-36, OT); Houston Academy # (L, 0-52); Geneva # (L, 33-49); at Andalusia (L, 7-55); at Wicksburg # (L, 0-47); at Providence Christian # (L, 0-61); Pike County # (L, 6-51); at Slocomb # (L, 7-47); Luverne (L, 14-34)
>> Points scored/per game: 130/13.0
>> Points allowed/per game: 485/48.5
>> Returning offensive starters (7): QB Hal Smithart (Jr.); RB Ashton Patel (Sr., 5-10, 180)); WR Erik Matthews (Jr.); WR Lane Ballard (Jr., 5-10, 165); OL Seth Butts (Sr., 5-10, 230); OL Jaylen Stoudemire (Sr., 6-0, 270); OL Chandler Pyron (Jr.)
>> Returning defensive starters (8): DL Jesse Coon (Jr., 6-0, 200); DL Jaylen Stoudemire (Sr., 6-0, 270); OLB Dakota Cornelius (Jr., 5-10, 185); LB James Cornelius (Sr., 6-0, 225); OLB Jaydon Lacey (Jr., 6-2, 190); DB Lane Ballard (Jr., 5-10, 165); S Thomas Glisson (Jr., 5-10, 170); S Kevin Parreira (Jr., 6-0, 180).
Aug. 30 at Elba
Sept. 6 Straughn #
Sept. 13 at Houston Academy #
Sept. 20 at Geneva #
Sept. 27 Andalusia
Oct. 4 Wicksburg #
Oct. 11 Providence Christian #
Oct. 18 at Pike County #
Oct. 25 Slocomb #
Nov. 1 at Luverne
# Denotes region contest