Historic week at Pine Hills

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 24, 1999

They will be doing something at Pine Hills Academy this week that’s never been done before.

The Wildcat football team is preparing for a playoff game.

Pine Hills finished the regular season at 8-2, earning a wild card spot. Its two losses came in MPSA District 6A as the Wildcats lost to Tallulah 14-12 in the first game of the year and then lost 14-13 to Tensas later in the year.

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Tallulah finished unbeaten on the season, while Tensas’ only district loss was to Tallulah. The Wildcats are three points away from finishing unbeaten.

The 8-2 record is the best mark by a Pine Hills team since 1971 when the Wildcats went 9-1 and were crowned South State champs. There were no playoffs at that time.

So what has been the big turnaround?

Most Wildcat followers will probably tell you second-year head coach Tony Johnson. Johnson credits the players.

&uot;It’s a matter of a lot of hard work,&uot; he said. &uot;They got in the weight room and really worked. Last year we only had three people who had played football. It was a learning experience. We were just trying to build confidence.&160;This year everything has really jelled.&uot;

Johnson, 35, arrived at Pine Hills from Lee Academy in Marianna, Ark, where he helped revive that program, leading them to the North State championship. He has also coached at Clarksdale and Greenville Christian.

Johnson was a graduate assistant under Curley Hallman at Southern Mississippi and even helped Hill Denson in baseball.

&uot;I&160;loved it there,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;Coach Hallman knew his stuff. He worked 18 hours a day and made us work with him. He could find talent in a bush. (Gerry) DiNardo didn’t win but with his players.&uot;

Johnson was asked to interview at Pine Hills, knowing the school was in the same shape as Lee had been. One big reason for Johnson’s interest in the Gloster school is the fact his son, Justin Johnson, is a seventh-grader at Cathedral.

&uot;This got me closer to him and I was able to catch a few of his games this year,&uot; he said.

Johnson said he expected the turnaround to take three of four years, but said Pine Hills has a lot of talented players.

&uot;It all starts in the junior high,&uot; he said. &uot;And we’ve got a dandy group of kids here. I’m proud to work with them.&uot;

And now comes another learning experience -&160;getting ready for Friday’s first-round playoff game at Tri-County.

&uot;We just have to approach it one game at a time,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;We can’t let the pressure get to us. We have to play within ourselves. If we don’t get overexcited about making it, some people may be surprised by what we can do.&uot;

Johnson is not the only area coach turning things around. Tim Nickens is in his first year at Wilkinson County Christian Academy and has the Rams at 3-6. WCCA has been at the bottom the last few years, but the Rams have been very competitive this year, including a 20-13 loss to Centreville.

The Rams beat Trinity 20-12 Friday after upsetting Silliman 7-6 the week before. WCCA ends its season at Amite School Center Friday.

&uot;These last two wins do a lot for the school,&uot;&160;Nickens said. &uot;They haven’t had a lot of success in varsity. This helps keep the kids motivated and believing in themselves. It’s going to do a lot for our off-season program.&uot;

Joey Martin is sports editor of The Democrat. He can be reached by calling 446-5172 ext. 232 or at joey.martin@natchezdemocrat.com.