As his team cycled through its pregame routine on Thursday, Oak Grove football coach Pat Richard talked about the need for his team, the defending Missouri Class 3 state champion to establish its own identity — to break away from its success of 2014 and make an early imprint on 2015.
Easier said than done, of course.
“There’s some pressure on these guys (after last year), no doubt, but that ain’t all bad,” Richard said. “Sometimes that’s how you find out what you’re made of.”
It only took two weeks.
Oak Grove rallied in the fourth quarter for a 21-16 victory at O’Hara on Thursday night.
The teams traded leads four times — all in the second half — before Kenton Wilhoit ran in the game-winning touchdown with 7:12 remaining for Oak Grove, which improved to 2-0.
It was smooth sailing in the opener last week.
Not as much Thursday.
O’Hara quarterback Matthew Johnson fired two second-half touchdowns — both of which briefly put the Celtics in front — before Oak Grove held on late. With a minute remaining, Panthers defensive tackle Austin Kemp stuffed O’Hara running back Brock Hughes on a fourth-down attempt.
It was the offense providing the highlights late, but the O’Hara defense kept the Celtics in the game with a bevy of big plays in the first half. Peyton Jones pounced on an early fumble — and then grabbed another on a muffed punt in the fourth quarter. The Celtics also stopped Oak Grove on three fourth-down attempts.
That allowed the Celtics’ offense enough time to put together an impact scoring drive. Johnson found senior Jordan Supplee on a 32-yard seam route that put the Celtics on the board with 5:43 left in the third quarter, and Johnson ran in the two-point conversion for an 8-7 lead.
The first lead was brief — as were most of them Thursday.
Oak Grove answered on its ensuing drive, keeping the ball on the ground for the whole drive, and Jake Harrenstein executed a 1-yard plunge on fourth down for an Oak Grove lead at 15-8.
That lead didn’t last either.
On a fourth-down play, Johnson fired a 7-yard touchdown to Austin Evans — and then the two connected again on the two-point conversion to push O’Hara back ahead, 16-15.
Wilhoit scampered in the game-winner on the ensuing drive.
A back-and-forth second half.
After a quiet first one.
Oak Grove didn’t find the end zone until the second quarter, and it required a fourth-down conversion to break the scoreless tie. A team that insists it plans to add to its passing attack utilized quarterback Chance Alexander’s right arm for its first score. Alexander connected with Quin Schnieders in the corner of the end zone on a 3-yard out.
The added intent to pass the ball stems from the loss of Aaron Graham, who ran for 2,934 yards and 41 touchdowns last season. After Graham’s graduation, the Oak Grove plan for his replacement centers around a group effort.
In addition to adding responsibility to the quarterback, Oak Grove has turned to tailbacks Landon Cairer, Wilhoit and Harrenstein to lead its running game.
“I don’t know if you can replace a guy like that, but we’re going to do the best we can,” Cairer said. “I would say last year we were just as much of a cohesive unit, but this year I think the carries are going to be a little more divided up.”
It was slow moving in the first half. It came alive over the second half.
Just in time.
“Losing 15 seniors is hard, but when those 15 seniors leave and everybody behind them is now competing that much harder to fill that void, that’s what you want as a coach,” Richard said. “Our kids have embraced that. We’re rolling more guys this year and letting them compete. It’s been a great thing for our team.”