Hard work is paying early dividends for the Oxford Hornets09/07/2021 12:17AM ● By Steven Hoffman
The Oxford Hornets football team is off to a 2-0 start for the 2021 season, and head coach Mike Means credits the leaders on the team—especially the large group of seniors—for doing the hard work necessary in the off-season to set the stage for this early-season success.
“I think it comes down to the great off-season work that our kids put in,” Means said just moments after the Hornets defeated the Sun Valley Vanguards, 32-12, on September 3. “Our kids really bought in to what we’ve been asking them to do. We’ve got leaders on the team and they’ve embraced everything that we’ve asked of them. This feels like a new team.”
The Hornets certainly need to be prepared as they progress through the 2021 season—the schedule this year might be the hardest in the program’s history as Oxford has added some tough non-league teams to a schedule that already features some of the best squads from the powerful Ches-Mont League. Oxford earned a hard-fought 25-22 win over Radnor in Week 1, and followed that effort up with an even more impressive win against a much-improved Sun Valley team.
If there is a theme to the early part of this season for Oxford, it might be summed up as “work hard, play harder.” The team looks loose, relaxed, and confident as they grind out victories play by play.
Last Friday, Sun Valley scored the first touchdown of the game—and, as it turned out, the last—but Oxford dominated the game for stretches in between, especially in the second half.
Sun Valley played well early on, putting together two good offensive series to start the game, and the Vanguards’ defense forced Oxford to go three-and-out during the Hornets’ first possession. But soon, Oxford was finding its own footing offensively. Oxford quarterback Dustin Long tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Evans on the first play of the second quarter, capping a 73-yard drive and tying the game at 6-6. The drive was also highlighted by a 22-yard run by Dom Pantalone.
Oxford took its first lead of the game with 2:43 left to play in the second quarter. The Hornets started the drive deep in their own territory—at the 9-yard line. Long threw a quick screen pass to Dakota Jones, who caught the ball and raced up the right sideline for a 65-yard gain. On the next play, Pantalone turned in another good run, following his blockers to the left and gaining 15 yards. Long demonstrated his ability to run the ball on the next play, scoring from ten yards out on an electrifying quarterback keeper where he used his speed to beat the defenders. Long celebrated the successful 91-yard drive by racing over to the sidelines and encouraging the large home crowd—which was already boisterous—to boost the decibels even more. It was 12-6, and that was the score when the game headed into halftime.
The Hornets struck quickly in the third quarter after a nice run by Evans and a beautiful pass play in which Long hit receiver Sean Hunsicker in stride along the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown. Kicker Will Smith made it 19-6 when he booted the extra point.
Hunsicker, who plays on both sides of the ball for Oxford, helped the defense stop Sun Valley’s next offensive series deep in Oxford territory when he broke up a pass on a third-and-eleven play. The ensuing punt was downed at the one-yard line. With the Hornets pinned deep in their own territory, the result of the game was still very much in question. One mistake at that part of the field could swing momentum back to Sun Valley. But the Hornets weren’t about to let that happen. On first down, Long kept the ball on a quarterback keeper. He disappeared into a big crowd of players and, when the dust settled a moment later, he had reached the 10-yard line—an enormous play to give the Hornets some room to operate. The 10-yard burst also demonstrated Oxford’s determination to win the game in the trenches. Three plays later, Long threw a nice pass over the middle that Zach Miller hauled in. Miller broke free and ran down the field, shaking a would-be tackler around the 40-yard line and then racing into the end zone for an 85-yard touchdown. It was 25-6.
Oxford added another touchdown, making it 32 points in a row, before Sun Valley scored a touchdown late in the game to make the final score 32-12.
Means said that Sun Valley played a very tough game, especially early on.
“They came out and played a physical game,” Means said. “We had to make some adjustments.”
Long said that there were several times during the game when Oxford dialed up a good play call for the moment—one example of that was the pass play to Miller that resulted in a touchdown. Long, a junior, was starting just his third game at the position, but demonstrated real potential that can be unearthed through hard work during the rest of this season and the next.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Hornets boast a hustling, tenacious group of players who take turns making the big play.
“We’ve got depth at every level of the defense,” Means said.
The Oxford coach called Luke Piskun, the middle linebacker, the engine that makes Oxford’s defense run. Another standout is Hunsicker, who plays on offense and defense.
Means said that, against Sun Valley, Hunsicker was all over the field—which is the ultimate compliment that a football coach can bestow on a player.
In recent years, Oxford has been known as an offensive force, a team that can put up the points, but they’ve had a hard time winning games against the elite Ches-Mont League squads that have good defenses or good offenses.
“The next step that we have to take is to win these ugly defensive games against the good teams,” Means said.
The win over Sun Valley came at the end of a very difficult week in Oxford. The region was in the path of Hurricane Ida, and even though the storm had been downgraded to a Tropical Depression by the time it roared through the area on September 1, it left devastation in its wake. There was heavy flooding and some fast-moving tornadoes were spawned by the storm. One tornado did extensive damage to homes in a housing development that is very close to Oxford’s school campus where the Hornets play their home games.
Means noted that dozens of students from the high school volunteered to help with the cleanup effort earlier in the day. He said that he was proud of all those who volunteered, and proud of the football team for delivering a victory for Oxford.
“It was a tough week for this community,” Means said. “A lot of the kids were out there for hours today helping to clean up the debris. If the team could lift the community up a little bit, it was good to come through and do that.”
Long echoed the sentiment.
“We wanted to show up for our town,” he said.
The Hornets will host Kennett at 7 p.m. this Friday in Week 3 action.