It required neither imagination nor research. It’s family history as much as Oxford history.
There was an Oxford team, coached by his dad, Robert Herring. It suffered two early losses but went on to win a state championship. The year was 1989.
The message was heard.
“That really kind of just told us that we’re really not done,” senior running back Racean Thomas said. “We can still win it.”
Ryan Herring’s first Oxford team has spent seven consecutive victories repeating history.
The Yellow Jackets are 7-2 headed into tonight’s regular-season finale against 10th-ranked Spain Park (8-1) at home. They’ve already clinched second place in Class 6A, Region 7 and, with it, a first-round playoff game at home against Tuscaloosa County next week.
It sure didn’t look like Oxford would be in this place in preseason — new coach, all new and smallish offensive line, two college-signed defensive linemen gone and the best returning defensive player sidelined by a horrific knee injury in spring practice.
After an 0-2 start against Georgia power Carrollton and Clay Chalkville, then Alabama 6A’s No. 2 team, preseason worries seemed confirmed.
Then came the matter of Thomas’ early-season injuries, including a concussion and ankle.
Oxford was headed into the season’s third game, against region rival Gadsden City, with Thomas only able to give what turned out to be six carries for seven yards. The Yellow Jackets had to win or face an 0-3 record with two region losses.
But the Yellow Jackets had an app for that. They had Ryan Herring, the 1994 grad who used to wear the same uniform and remembered all too well one of his dad’s greatest teams.
The 1989 team was 2-2 after losses to then-6A-champion-to-be Anniston and Gardendale, which finished 10-2 in 6A. Those Yellow Jackets won the next 10 games, including five playoff games en route to a 5A title.
“It’s been done before here,” Ryan Herring said. “Why can’t we do it?”
He had a team ready to believe.
The season-opening loss to Carrollton was a throwaway game. The opponent was widely regarded as one of Carrollton’s best, and Thomas’ concussion kept him on the bench in the second half.
A week later, the Yellow Jackets took a 27-14 lead into the fourth quarter at Clay Chalkville, but Thomas sustained an ankle injury. They lost 37-27 but viewed it as a winnable game.
“We made mistakes against Carrollton, but they beat us,” Ryan Herring said. “The Clay Chalkville game, I thought we lost the game. Instead of them beating us, we lost it.
“I think the kids, on Sunday, understood that it was a game that we could have won. … They understood that we could have won that game if we’d just taken care of Oxford. Not Clay Chalkville, us, so all we’ve got to do is fix the man in the mirror.”
We came away from it saying, all we have to do is take care of the man in the mirror — take care of Oxford and do your job.”
Still, Oxford faced a must-win game against Gadsden City, and Ryan Herring knew Thomas would be limited at best. The coach challenged his defense to get a shutout, and Oxford won 6-0.
“It was one of the best defensive games I’ve ever seen, because we played on our side of the field just about the whole game,” Ryan Herring said.
That Oxford did it with very little from Thomas only added to the confidence boost, and no one was happier to see it than Thomas.
“It was great,” he said. “Really, I think it was kind of a wake-up call to everybody else, kind of telling everybody else that they can really do stuff without me in the game.
“I think everybody else really kind of figured that out that game.”
Oxford has continued to do it with Thomas, beating Huntsville, Florence, Lee-Huntsville, Grissom, Albertville and Pell City. The Yellow Jackets averaged 40.6 points in those games and gave up 12.2.
Still playing without injured middle linebacker Weston Caldwell, a senior and two-year starter before dislocating a knee in spring, they managed another shutout against Albertville.
Oxford avenged last year’s emotional loss to Pell City this past Friday, winning 41-20 to clinch second place in Region 7. Where is the Yellow Jackets’ confidence now?
“Probably through the roof,” Thomas said.
The shutouts and the victory over Pell City have given rise to a fun little side story with this Oxford team.
One might have noticed shaved heads among the coaching staff. Shaving a coach’s head became reward for shutouts, starting with David Darden after the Gadsden City game.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t carry the unguarded beard trimmer to their 35-0 victory over Albertville, so Ryan Herring made a promise two days later.
“On Sunday, we were sitting there ready to shave somebody’s head,” Ryan Herring said. “I said, ‘We’ll, I’ll tell you what. How about this? I’ll make a deal with you. If you beat Pell City, you can shave three heads’.”
Ryan Herring, Chad Cochran and Jeremy Tapley had their dates with the shaver Sunday, making it four coaches with shaved heads.
Maybe it’s a story an Oxford coach can share, say, 24 years down the road, after a rough start.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.