Ryan Gregory is hoping for the ‘ghost town’ effect. If he has it his way, there won’t be a soul in Oak Grove on Thursday night.
Intimately nestled away in quiet, unassuming West Carroll Parish, tiny Oak Grove is proud of its contributions to northeast Louisiana culture. There’s the Sweet Potato Festival, the spring bluegrass festival and the Jesse James Trade Days and accompanying outlaw roundup.
But traditionally there’s only one thing capable of shutting down the entire town — Oak Grove Tiger football. Stores closed, services called it a day early and restaurants made sure you were ‘about done’ with your plate just in time to get to Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers were the hottest ticket in town, but things haven’t been the same around the Oak Grove program since it began the transition from the 1A classification it traditionally dominated up to 2A, all while losing the stewardship of iconic head coach Vic Dalrymple after the 2012 season.
That’s why it’s Gregory’s job to bring it back.
Gregory was the obvious choice by most to take over as head coach when Gary Adkins ended his mercurial one-year tenure at the school. The former assistant knows the program from the ground up and serves as a link to Dalrymple’s dominant run as a player on the 1999 and 2001 state title teams.
Oak Grove started 2014 slow out of the gates but thanks to a four-game winning streak the Tigers (5-4, 4-0) have the chance to capture their first District 2-2A championship with Sterlington coming to town on Thursday.
Both Gregory and his players are starting to get that old feeling again and they hope it makes for a return to the rowdy days of Tiger Stadium.
“They know,” Gregory said. “You can’t grow up in Oak Grove and not know how much the community gets behind this team. I remember sometimes we had more people in the stands then the entire town so I’m hoping we get back to that Thursday night.”
Sterlington also climbed out of an early season hole much like Oak Grove to put itself in position for a late-season run. The district title is the first step in the plan Jason Thompson put in place to raise the bar when he agreed to coach the Panthers (5-3, 4-0) in 2013.
“When I took this job I came here because I felt like the potential to win championships was here and this is the first one we’ve had an opportunity to win,” Thompson said. “I certainly hope it can be the springboard towards future success but this is the biggest one for us since we came on here.”
Gregory — also Oak Grove’s offensive coordinator — put the Tigers back in the power I-formation offense they’ve run traditionally and Thompson said there isn’t much secret to what they do. Operating behind running backs Jaylen Holt and Sam Philley, quarterback Chris Mitchell operates an offense that’s 90-percent run oriented.
What concerns Thompson most is an enormous offensive line that features maulers Mickey Broadway, Chase Russell and Lance Hartley.
“Their sheer size is where it begins,” Thompson said. “I would say they average 280-300 on the front and we’re not very big ourselves.
“They’re doing exactly what they need to be doing with their offensive personnel pounding the football so we’re just going to have to stuff as many bodies in the box as we can and hopefully create some turnovers.”
If speed becomes a factor, Sterlington feels good about its chances with running backs DeVante Douglas and Jeffrey Griffin. Gregory praised how ‘smooth’ quarterback Devon Murphy runs the Panther offense.
“I definitely think he’s one of the best players in the district,” Gregory said. “We just have to limit big plays. Their offense is a whole lot like ours in terms of what they’re running but we can’t let those athletes get out in space.”
As if the allure of a district title wasn’t enough, the mayors of both towns also got in on the action with a side bet. If Sterlington wins, Mayor Vern Breland gets a night at the movies at Oak Grove’s famous Fiske Theater. If Oak Grove comes out on top, Mayor Adam Holland has a catfish dinner at Sterlington’s Fish House restaurant coming his way.
“There’s some pressure right there,” Thompson joked. “We’re looking forward to a great atmosphere. You’ve got two proud schools and two proud communities playing in week 10 with a title on the line.
“These are the things that make small town high school special.”
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Sterlington (5-3, 4-0) at Oak Grove (5-4, 4-0)
Kickoff: 7 p.m., KRJO 1680-AM (Sterlington), KWCL 96.7-FM (Oak Grove)
Who/What to watch: Sterlington wants to use speed to its advantage with running backs DeVante Douglas and Jeffrey Griffin and quarterback Devon Murphy.
Get in the game: Oak Grove’s power I-formation offense centers around a big, experienced offensive line featuring Mickey Broadway.