Editor's note: Each August, Anniston Star Sports Writer Joe Medley visits every Calhoun County school’s football practice before the season starts. It’s November 2019, and a record five of 12 football-playing schools in the county have made the semifinals. Game for another round of Travelin’? Check The Anniston Star and annistonstar.com each day for Joe’s reports leading to Friday’s semifinal games.
OXFORD — You’d think Keith Etheredge would have a case of tight jaws this week and forgive him for it.
His first Oxford team has gone as far as Oxford has ever gone in Class 6A. Two-time defending state champion Pinson Valley comes to town for a state semifinal and rematch of one of the regular season’s greatest games.
Oxford’s return to the semifinals for the first time since 2011 comes amid an historic backdrop. Nobody in Calhoun County wants to fail on a night when a record five schools play in semifinals over three classifications.
You’d think any coach would full on worry about not worrying enough about whatever they forgot to worry about in this circumstance, but not Easy E.
He wears big moments like the most comfortable coaching pullover in his collection of three-stripe apparel. Come to think, he wears small moments that way, and why not?
“This is the thing,” Etheredge said. “You can’t put too much pressure on kids.”
Could that be Etheredge’s secret?
Could that be what this Oxford team needed at just this moment?
There’s no arguing results. Oxford is 12-1 and champion of Region 6, one of the state’s toughest regions. A win Friday guarantees Etheredge at least his second red, state runner-up trophy. Two wins guarantee him his fifth blue champion’s trophy and Oxford its first state since 1993, back in the 5A glory years.
Where Etheredge goes, he wins, and he caught Oxford ready for the next step. Ryan Herring resigned in the spring to take the Pierce County (Ga.), leaving behind a team that made the quarterfinals two years in a row. Herring left behind what he projected as the fastest Oxford team in years.
Again, hard to argue with a team that’s scored eight defensive touchdowns this season. Etheredge had key players to replace, but he inherited a vast toybox of players who can turn an open-field opportunity with the ball into points.
Oxford was ready to break through when it made one of the splash hires of the offseason. Etheredge walked in the door and said, ‘sup guys?
Actually, it wasn’t quite like that.
After a season-opening rout of Munford, Etheredge coached up his locker-room entry. Maybe it was the thing he forgot to worry about that week, but players rehearsed their reactions to his door teases.
He opened, they started to roar. He closed: “Awwwww.”
After a couple of rehearsals and the real thing, Etheredge came through the door to a raucous reaction.
A championship coach plays peek-a-boo with his team. Who knew?
That’s how Etheredge carries himself. Situations that cause other coaches to seem stressed to 110 percent of themselves, he wears them like 75 percent on a bad day.
Media on a week like this? It’s the same as media any other week. Sure, whatever and whenever.
If he fears failure, he rarely shows it. How perfect for a talented team that’s ripe to push farther than any of its current players have been.
A large percentage of success, is not blowing it.
“If you’re yelling, and if you push kids to an extent, it gets overwhelming for them,” Etheredge said. “You have to play it like it’s the next game.”
As for underlying expectations that cause externals to think not so incrementally, well hey. It’s all baked into the cake.
“I always think, when I walk into a situation, that it’s going to be a state-championship team,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve thought that, simply because I try to look at things as glass-half-full, not half-empty.”
Could there be a more perfect mode for the head man, when Pinson Valley retook the lead in the fourth quarter in September? Third-down long ball, tipped ball and all, Oxford found a way to win.
Could there be a more credible shrug, when Clay-Chalkville put off the inevitable against an Oxford team missing a few injured players in October? A healthier Yellow Jackets’ lineup beat Gardendale a week later to clinch the region's top seed, and they went on to beat Clay-Chalkville where Clay-Chalkville beat them the previous two years, in the quarterfinals.
Oxford comes more than glass-half-full into its chance to make its first 6A final. It comes with a guy who’s been there, time and again, and knows how to wear cup-runneth-over expectations.
Easy E and Big O make quite a match.