In football, they’re on their third head coach in second-year coach Jason Howard and looking to improve on a 2-8 finish in his first year. That’s foremost on their minds in August and should be.
In April, they saw devastation caused by an EF-4 tornado that roared through their community. It raised concerns beyond their years.
“What I get from it is that you never know when something like that is going to happen,” senior center and nose guard Brady Kelley said. “Your life can end at any minute. You’ve got car wrecks and tornadoes, anything like that.
“You’ve got to play every game like it’s your last. You don’t know if you’re going to break an ankle, and you don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow or what’s going to happen.”
Nearly four months have passed since the April 27 tornado. Rebuilding efforts go on, but time and onset of football have put that terrible day in the way-back for the Indians.
For them and their community, football season on the Creek Bank becomes a happy diversion. It’s fun to think about how the Indians might improve in the second year under a proven winner and native son like Howard.
They lost only three seniors from 2010, and the many freshmen who played a year ago are sophomores. They’ve had a year to do what Ohatchee’s team most needed to do – get stronger.
“That’s the big thing,” Howard said. “We’re a good bit stronger, overall. Brady Kelley is the strongest person on the team, and he’s stronger than anybody we had last year, hands down, but overall as a team, top to bottom, we’ve all shown a lot of increases.
“A lot of it is maturity. We played a bunch of little puppies last year. Now, they’re a year older.”
Howard, who played for Ohatchee, came back in 2010 after leading Spring Garden to its best seasons in football. He said Ohatchee is ahead of where Spring Garden was after year one because the Indians have more tradition.
“I feel like we’re ahead of where we were (at Spring Garden),” he said, “but it just takes several years to get it to the point where it needs to be.”
Getting there has proved difficult for Ohatchee, which is on its third head coach since Jeff Smith produced winning seasons there. The current seniors transitioned from Ray Crump to Chad Cochran as freshmen then from Cochran to Howard.
Ohatchee has won six games in three years.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Kelley said. “You never feel like you can really get settled in.
“When they (other coaches) left, it was kind of like it was pretty weird every time to readjust and get used to the new coaches. Coach Howard seems like he wants to stay there a while. Ohatchee is his home.”
Several in Ohatchee lost homes or worse during the April 27 tornado, which killed nine people in Calhoun County.
Howard said no one on the team lost family members, but some saw their homes damaged or had family members who lost homes. Several players went out to help people who were affected.
“I couldn’t have been more proud,” Howard said. “We were down there the day after the storms working, and I saw a bunch of them boys. I mean, they got out and really worked.”
Kelley was out working the night of the storm along with some friends.
“Me and my buddies went out that night and was kind of clearing the roads,” he said. “We stayed out there for the next few days, trying to clean stuff up.
“One of my buddies that I grew up with, he helped me work and stuff, and he was one of the ones really affected by it. He lost his house.”
Kelley’s family was lucky. They lost an old shed but had planned to tear it down.
Still, seeing what others lost was tough.
“You never expect it to hit home like that,” he said. “You see it on TV, and you feel bad for those people, but it’s really a life-changing experience to see everybody go through that and see a little town like this get hit like that.
“It’s eye-opening. You think about a lot of stuff, like how lucky you are to still have your house.”
Howard wouldn’t go so far as to say the Indians are using Ohatchee’s tornado tragedy as a rallying point, but there is a sense that the community can rally around the team.
“I think there’s some excitement,” he said. “I thought in spring (practice) it was good.
“We started our spring practice right after the tornadoes and all hit, and it gave people sort of an escape. I’m not saying we had a lot of people who did that, but we’d have some come and watch practice for a couple of hours.”
It’s all part of the experience that has been the past four years for Ohatchee’s seniors. Kelley hopes they can give their community something to cheer this fall.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good,” he said. “… If we don’t win, we’re going to lay everything out on the line.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.