If the first few weeks of the 2020 Mississippi high school football season have taught us anything, it’s that the Oxford Chargers’ miraculous, 18-point comeback against Oak Grove and the school’s first state championship in 2019 was not a fluke.
In fact, it’s just what a Chris Cutcliffe-led team is built for.
Even with the bullseye on their back – and in a season filled with nuances with uncertainties thanks to a global pandemic and losing one of the best senior classes in school history – the Chargers haven’t missed a beat. After a looming forfeit from DeSoto Central this week, Oxford will improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2013. The Chargers will are also riding an 18-game winning streak (thanks to that forfeit) which dates back to August 2019. It’s the second longest active winning streak in the state.
According to Cutcliffe, lasting success comes down to five factors: energy, competition, family, toughness, habits. Family, in particular, has been on full display this season, as evidenced by overcoming 16-point and 20-point deficits in back-to-back games in September.
“It’s easy for a lot of people to say, but it’s actually a harder value to live out as a team,” Cutcliffe said. “If things are going well, you celebrate and enjoy the good times together. What the family does in tough times is draw together.”
“You don’t see division creeping in, the blaming and all of that. Our players believe in that and live out that value. In tough times, you see our team draw closer together.”
Even dating back to last December, Cutcliffe had a more conditioned team.
“A lot of credit for that goes to our strength and conditioning coach, Jason Wilfawn,” Cutcliffe said. “He does a fantastic job. Our players are confident in our conditioning level and confident they can win the second half and the fourth quarter because of the work we do year around to prepare for those moments.”
Cutcliffe said before the season he planned to employ a dual-quarterback system, both out of necessity and out of an abundance of caution around COVID-19. Midway through the season, he has stuck to his guns and continues to play the hot hand behind center. And junior Michael Harvey and sophomore Trip Maxwell have not disappointed thus far, combining to complete 56 percent of their passes for an average of 213 yards a game with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“I’m really, really proud of how they played so far,” Cutcliffe said. “They both play consistently well for us early on. We don’t necessarily change depending on who’s in the game. They’re not terribly different from each other.”
“In a season like this year with all the uncertainty of COVID and the potential for having to quarantine and having other issues, having two guys that you can count on and believe in is a great luxury for our football team.”
Another added luxury the Chargers have enjoyed is having the entire offensive line back from a year ago, as well as junior running back Omar Howell, to pace the offense. If all that wasn’t enough, sophomore Roman Gregory has emerged as a budding star in the backfield to complement Howell.
They also have perhaps the most stacked receiver corps since current NFL star D.K. Metcalf lined up for them. Three seniors – D.K. Johnson, Jalen Webb and Jay Wortham – have made the quarterback transition a lot smoother, combining for 36 receptions for 678 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They’ve all really pushed each other,” wide receivers coach Logan Dodson said. “Our guys don’t care which quarterback is out there, they believe in both guys, and you see it. Two big physical guys and one shifty slot guy who’s been making plays.”
Defensively, the Chargers had to replace 10 starters from last year’s No. 1 scoring defense in Class 6A. Senior safety Tristan Shorter is the lone piece of that defensive puzzle back this season. While his production speaks for itself, he has also played a huge role in both of Oxford’s multi-score comebacks with two pick-sixes that both flipped momentum. The unit as a whole has been tested at times, but they have made the timely stops and turnovers when it mattered most.
Newer defensive players like Xavier Walton, Keegan Wilfawn and Jamarri Sims have waited for their time and delivered when their name was called. The common denominator: defensive coordinator, Stan Robertson.
“(Robertson) is an outstanding coach,” Cutcliffe said. “His attention to detail is second to none. He prepares us for Friday night. One particular thing he does phenomenally well is getting the defensive staff on the same page with everything. Everyone knows their exact part of the puzzle. That’s a huge part of successful football is having consistency with the coaches to the players.”
The team’s captain, senior kicker and punter Jack Tannehill, has been equally as effective at flipping field position and knocking through key field goals.
Even with a surprise off-week, the challenge doesn’t get easier. That’s particularly the case off the field with players and coaches having to stay safe in the midst of a virus pandemic.
“It’s a challenging situation for all of us,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not a hard sell when you lay all that out like that, by explaining what we’re trying to do as a team and what our goals are. It’s at the forefront of their minds. It’s up to us as coaches to model that behavior as well.”
Oxford will return to the field on October 16 to face the Horn Lake Eagles at Bobby Holcomb Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.