Greenville Christian’s D.J. Smith (10, with the ball) rambles for yardage against Oak Grove. Smith accounted for six touchdowns in the Saints’ 48-41 victory Friday night. (Photo by Pat Causey)

OAK GROVE – The proud Oak Grove Warriors, winners of 15 straight and the defending State Class 6A champions, had erased a 26-7 deficit and now led tiny Greenville Christian’s Saints 27-26 in the third quarter Friday night.

The crowd on the double-decked home side of Warrior Field cheered wildly. All around him, Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon saw — and even heard — some of his best players cramping and screaming in pain between gulps of water and replacement fluids. Star quarterback D.J. Smith was among the suffering, angry that the game had changed so dramatically, angry that his long, muscled legs were betraying him.

Rick Cleveland

For McLendon, it had to seem that all was lost. It surely seemed like that to this observer, who found himself feeling almost sorry for the badly out-numbered visitors, who have become one of the most compelling stories of this or any Mississippi football season.

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Then, somehow, the visiting Saints reached deep within themselves, summoning the will, courage and energy to make spectacular play after spectacular play and pulling off a stunning, 48-41 victory that will be talked about for decades by those who witnessed it.

“We had something to prove,” Smith, the multi-talented quarterback, said after the game. “We had to fight adversity, but our coaches preach that every day. People said we only have 35 players, but I love these guys. I’d go to battle with these guys any day.”

This was a football version of “Hoosiers” — one of the state’s largest high schools with a history of football success, hosting one of the state’s smallest private schools. Oak Grove has twice as many students in its senior class as Greenville Christian has in grades K-12.

But you can only put 11 players on the field at a time, and Greenville Christian’s first 11 — perhaps its first 22 — are as talented as any you will see at the high school level. They are also disciplined, well-coached and play with a togetherness, an unmistakeable bond, that is exceedingly rare.

Oak Grove coach Drew Causey knew all that when he scheduled this made-for-the-moment game just a couple weeks ago. In this COVID-ravaged season, Oak Grove needed a game, and not just anyone is willing to schedule a road game at Warrior Field. Greenville Christian was. The Saints needed a game, and — let’s face it — they needed some competition. The two schools, different in so many ways, came together and made it happen. Both teams should be better for it.

Marlon Palmer (2) rambled for 205 yards, packing 210 pounds on punch on his 5 feet, 8 inches. (Photo by Pat Causey)

Still, McLendon and his small staff had to be reconsidering the decision to play the game early in the third quarter when all seemed to be going the wrong way. Oak Grove had scored 20 straight points. Smith was writhing in pain from multiple cramps. Star linebackers William Stewart and Altorryian Sandifer were cramping. So were others. Oak Grove, with more than twice as many players dressed out, was rolling.

“We had like five or six guys that started to cramp,” McLendon said. “This is the first game all year that we battled that so severely. It was a physical game. We started to get thin. You have to think about who can go where and you have to get creative with your personnel.”

A Gatorade bath did not wipe the smile off Jon Reed McLendon’s face. (Photo by Rick Cleveland)

What Greenville Christian lacks in quantity, the Saints more than make up for with quality. Among those proud and few Saints are several supremely gifted athletes. Start with Smith, who despite the cramps, threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 122 yards and four more scores.

“Smith was big-time tonight,” McLendon said. “We think he’s the best quarterback in the state. The kid is phenomenal.”

When Smith didn’t run or throw it, he handed off to Marlon Palmer, 210 pounds of compact muscle, who ran over, around and through the Warriors for 205 yards on 16 carries. 

All this, despite his own problems with cramps. Palmer might have made the biggest play of the game. With Smith cramping on the sidelines, he broke through the middle of the Oak Grove line, shrugging off several Warrior defenders for a 63-yard touchdown run and a 34-27 lead.

No listing of supremely gifted Saints would be complete without wide receiver Chris Bell, who caught touchdowns of 65 and 71 yards, despite constant double coverage from the Warriors. After his catches, Bell becomes like a running back, breaking tackles with uncommon strength for a wideout. He reminds this observer of A.J. Brown, the Starkville High-turned Ole Miss Rebels-turned Tennessee Titans receiver — not a comparison made lightly.

It took all that skill and much more to subdue Oak Grove, which had won 23 of its last 24 games.

Mostly, it took grit.

“Even when things were going badly there in the third quarter, we knew our guys wouldn’t quit,” McLendon said. “They are tough physically and mentally. They keep getting back up and finding a way. That’s who they are. I could not be more proud.”

For more photos from Friday night’s game, click here.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.