Every year the Jacksonville Christian coach takes the field with barely enough players for a complete starting offense and defense, but he is staunchly determined to field a team that plays as hard as its resources allow.
“It’s hard on us,” Miller said. “We’re playing from the bottom up every time you go out there. I’ve had so many people tell me there’s no way you can put a team on the field, but we have for several years and we plan on doing so this year.”
The school has only about 50 students in the top three grades. This year Miller, entering his 11th AHSAA season with the Thunder, dressed 20 players from grades 7 through 12 for the spring game.
He keeps at it because he knows football is important to the community and he believes the game teaches valuable life lessons to his players.
“The nucleus of the (JCA) family, they like football, so if there’s any way we can play football, we’re going to do it,” Miller said. “I think football for a young man is a laboratory for life.”
Added Miller: “I know people will throw rocks at me for this, but I think football ought to be required for young men. It’s that important for their development. A lot of things you run into later in life you can reflect right back on things you experienced on a football team.”
Despite the limited numbers, Miller and the Thunder have always found a way to win games. They’ve gone without a victory only once (2007) since playing an AHSAA schedule and have won at least three games every year since.
They made the playoffs in 2010. Last season they won three games and take a two-game winning streak into their season opener at Woodville, the team they beat in last year’s opener.
“I don’t know I can really come right out and tell you a formula I use,” Miller said. “There is a lot of psychology. I played for the guy who was one of the best coaches as far as using psychology there was — Lou Scales. He used so many different things in so many different ways. We have to do that.
“We have to make the guys realize there is always a chance — always — and if we prepare and got our mind right you never know what’s going to happen.”
This year, the Thunder return a junior quarterback and three senior backs who have been playing together since eighth grade.
Daylon Brackett has the reins of the offense, with Tyler Morales, Cody Blohm and Dakota Crook lined up behind him. Junior Chris Armprester, who started as a receiver and cornerback last year, gives them another weapon.
The toughest assignment for a school their size is finding linemen. Fortunately, the Thunder return Thomas Ohrm and center Jonah Parker, both of whom started last year as ninth-graders.
As one might expect, the Thunder’s margin for error is slim. They play their entire region schedule in the first eight weeks without a break and three of the first four games are on the road.
“When we made the playoffs three or four years ago, it was kind of a boost and a realization it can be done,” Miller said. “We won three last year and were in about three more we were very competitive in. When we can do that it encourages those guys who are out there.
“We always have two or three kids who can play and could play at a lot of places, but you have to have 11. I guess the hardest thing is you can’t put an 11th-grader’s mind in an eighth-grader. We’ve got some kids who are very young. We encourage them and brag on them and they should be (commended) for giving everything they’ve got when the odds are against them.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577. Jacksonville Christian at a glance Head coach: Tommy Miller (37-59 in 10 years at JCA, 59-98 in 16 years overall, including 22-39 in six years at Pleasant Valley).
Last year’s record: 3-7, including 1-7 and a eighth-place finish in Class 1A, Region 7. The Thunder did not make the playoffs.
Outlook: Because of their limited numbers, the Thunder are usually outmanned every week, but that doesn’t mean they get outplayed. A lot of things will have to go right around them for the Thunder to make the playoffs. With eight straight weeks of region play to open the season, they have little margin for error, and three of their first four are on the road.
Aug. 30, at Woodville
Sept. 6, at Collinsville
Sept. 13, vs. Donoho
Sept. 20, at Cedar Bluff
Sept. 27, vs. Spring Garden
Oct. 4, vs. Gaylesville
Oct. 11, at Valley Head
Oct. 18, vs. Coosa Christian
Oct. 25, vs. Alabama School for the Deaf
Nov. 1, at Shades Mountain Christian