HATTIESBURG — Back in my earliest days of sports writing, back in the dark ages, Oak Grove was a sleepy little country school, a few miles from Hattiesburg just across the Lamar County line.
The Warriors, as they were called then and now, played in the smallest classification of MHSAA football. To be nice, they were not particularly proficient at the sport. Indeed, they were often the other team’s homecoming opponent. Petal, Purvis, Bassfield and Collins were the Pine Belt’s small-town high school football powers. Oak Grove? The Hattiesburg American newspaper, for which I worked, rarely even sent a staff reporter to cover their games. We had an Oak Grove correspondent, who brought in his stories written in long-hand. He often struggled to make 35-0 defeats sound like valiant efforts.
That was then. This is now: The 2023 Oak Grove Warriors opened their season Thursday night with a resounding 49-0 victory over perennial power Wayne County. The drubbing was worse than it sounds. Oak Grove, with several big-time college prospects on display, led 42-0 at halftime and rested starters in the second half, which was played with a running clock.
This is also now: Kickoff was postponed one hour, back to 8 p.m., because of the blasphemous heat wave we are experiencing. Even so, the temperature was a humid 93 at kickoff and 84 at game’s end. There were mandatory water breaks midway through each quarter. The water boys were especially busy. Didn’t seem to bother the Warriors – or the visiting Wayne County War Eagles for that matter. I noticed one player limp off the field with cramps. Otherwise, the game was played without heat-related incident, a credit to the conditioning of both squads.
So much about high school football has changed over the decades. The players are so much larger and yet faster. The backs now are bigger than the linemen then. They throw the ball much more often. They play on plastic, not grass. The Oak Grove football stadium is double-decked on the home side. And, of course, the teams – and the stadiums – are integrated.
The westward migration of Hattiesburg into Lamar County has made Oak Grove into one of the state’s largest public schools. The Warriors play in the MHSAA’s new and largest Class 7A. Clearly, they are a force to be reckoned with, and we can measure just how good they are next Friday night when they play at Alabama powerhouse Hoover in Birmingham.
Those who haven’t followed the Oak Grove story over the last half century might ask: How did such a tiny country school become such a large school powerhouse? The migration is part of it. Mississippi Coaches Hall of Famer Nevil Barr is another. Barr, who played football at Purvis and then Southern Miss, coached at Sumrall and then Petal before taking the Oak Grove job in 2001. He instituted the spread offense back when few other high school teams were running it. His teams threw the ball over the field. All that passing and scoring coincided with Hattiesburg’s westward migration. Victories and championships followed.
Drew Causey, who played for Barr at Petal and then served him first as a line coach and then as offensive coordinator at Oak Grove, now heads the Oak Grove football juggernaut. Again, he could have named the score Thursday night against a Wayne County teams that annually is among the state’s Class 5A powers. My guess is – and I can’t confirm it – the 49-0 defeat is the most lopsided since Wayne County schools consolidated in 1988. The War Eagles aren’t nearly as bad as Oak Grove made them look Thursday night. (Last season, Oak Grove needed a last-second field goal to beat Wayne County.)
“We’ve got a really good football team, we’re excited,” Causey said. “And Wayne County’s a whole lot better than they looked tonight. They had five turnovers, we didn’t have any. They’ll win some games.”
Oak Grove has stamped itself as one of the favorites to win the first Mississippi Class 7A championship. The Warriors are loaded. Start with senior quarterback A.J. Maddox, who has committed to Texas A&M and plans to enroll there in January. Tall and muscular, he is the step-grandson of Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Reggie Collier and has a Collier-like throwing arm. His 39-yard dart of a touchdown throw to fellow senior Damari Jefferson began the onslaught. With a lineman in his face, Maddox threw perfectly into tight coverage, a big-time throw.
A.J.’s brother, junior Andrew Maddox, already a four-star recruit, teams with Southern Miss commit Caleb Moore to give the Warriors a fearsome interior defensive line that is as dominant as you will see in high school football. They could have qualified for homestead exemption in the War Eagles’ backfield.
There is speed everywhere you look on the Oak Grove team, especially at the offensive skill positions and in the defensive secondary. As always, Causey’s team is fundamentally as sound as can be.
On top of all else, senior Oak Grove kicking specialist Luke Stewart was stupendous with both placekicks and punts. He was seven-for-seven on extra points, eight-for-eight on touchbacks on kickoffs and his breathtaking punts threatened to bring badly needed rain. Stewart will be kicking for somebody at the next level.
It was all so impressive, especially for an observer who remembers the Oak Grove of old.