(Rutherford County, TN) A perfect football season is hard to come by. Three senior students-athletes at Oakland not only appeared at the championship game each year of their high school career, but also walked away with the state title for each of the past three. Freshman year was the only year Max Lovinski, Nathan Hepborn and Mason Bell did not win a championship title.
But they came close. We’ve seen winning all the way up since we were in sixth grade,” said Lovinski. “It just helps to carry on the tradition.” Lovinski, 18, plans to go to college for health sciences but isn’t sure where just yet.
“You know how to win,” Hepborn added. “You know everyone around you has the same mindset that you’re going to win. You almost feel like you can’t lose. So having that mindset in the program is always good, yeah?” Hepborn and Bell, both 17, plan to go to college but haven’t decided where yet or what they might study. Hepborn would like to continue playing but won’t know until February what his options are for college football.
“It feels good to be with a winning community,” Bell said. “Everybody around you has that winning mindset.” The boys are proud of their hard work over the past years at Oakland, but they are also cognizant of the dangers that come with complacency. A history of success never guarantees a future success.
“It really hit us when we lost to CPA (Christ Presbyterian Academy). I think it really turned us around and just let us know that we can be beaten, and it’s not going to be just easy,” said Lovinski. This specific game against CPA ended a three-year, 36 game winning streak for the Oakland Patriots. All three seniors reflected repeatedly on the lessons they learned from the loss.
“The CPA game got rid of a lot of complacency within us. Practices got harder. Workouts got more intense,” said Hepborn. “I think the loss ended up helping us in the long run. You never want to lose, obviously, but I think the loss ended up winning us that state championship.”
Bell agreed that the loss turned things around for the Patriots: “Winning gets us a little comfortable. Wherever we went in the week of CPA ... we didn’t play to our best and we lost to them,” Bell said. “But losing that game made us realize we can be beaten and turned our season around. We played a lot better from there.”
Many who have been a part of a team or organization that competes know how the years will change and develop you as a group. From freshman year to senior year a lot can happen, and a lot did happen for the three Oakland seniors.
“It’s definitely evolved a lot,” said Lovinski, speaking of his relationship with Coach Kevin Creasy. “Learning his offense is just kind of tough, and you just keep getting more experienced in it over and over. You keep listening to what he says and then you teach it to your younger people.”
That learning curve, from freshman year to senior year — it's high. “I think it’s hard for a freshman to really understand what it takes to win at this level,” said Hepborn. “You see it happening and think it happens overnight, but it's not Friday night when you win games. It’s Monday through Thursday. You have to really understand that to be able to win games at the level we’ve been doing the past few years. I had no clue as a freshman the commitment it took. Not even close.”
Bell noted the change from middle school to high school was a big one: “It just hit different,” Bell said, “the intensity from middle to high school. Even from freshman to varsity it’s just different. I feel like we have a different mindset (on this team) from everybody else. A lot of other schools have recruited players and I just feel like we care about each other and play together. If you have a whole bunch of star players that don’t play together and just want the ball – it doesn’t work.”
This essential teamwork and drive to succeed is what the boys believe have contributed to their team's success over their high school career. No superstars. Just a team giving it their all. “I think we care more about each other than other teams do,” said Hepborn. “Especially our class not really having superstars. We’re playing for each other and not just playing for ourselves.”
“In all 22 positions,” Lovinski added, “I feel we always have that next guy up that’s prepared, and I feel like that’s another thing coaches get us ready for. We always have that next guy up and they’re prepared and know what to do in the exact situation that arises.”
At Oakland, where football is such an important part of the community and culture, the football players are seen as heroes of the school. Seniors hold an important role as leaders in the community.
“You lead by doing the right thing and setting the right example for everybody in the building,” said Lovinski. “When they look at us, and especially when we have the jersey on or a t-shirt that says Oakland football you have to set the right example. It’ll always follow you.”
“Everything we do,” added Hepborn, “it’s a reflection of our program, really. So, if you’re wearing Oakland you’ve got to set a good example, not go out and do something that would be a bad reflection on the program. There’s always someone watching whether it be a freshman or a teacher. When I was a freshman, whether I knew it or not, I modeled myself after the seniors and juniors above me. So, I like to think what I do now is try to be a good model for the freshman coming up.”
As the end of senior year approaches, each of the boys reflected a little differently on what they would miss and what they would remember in 10 years.
“When you’re on a team with somebody, and you went to war with them, you could pick up the phone and call them and they’ll answer. So, I feel making lifelong friends and connections that I made — not a lot of people can say they have that because they didn’t go through what we went through together,” said Hepborn.
Lovinski reflected on his memories of wanting to join Oakland’s team ever since he was younger: “I’ve been watching Oakland football since I was 9 or 10 and just imagining myself playing there. Having it represented on your chest ... it’s just a good feeling,” said Lovinski.
Bell thought back to the loss against CPA, and the lessons he learned from that game: “What I’m going to miss most,” said Bell, “is the entire team. But I’ll also remember the loss against CPA. How we flipped a switch and turned our season around and went on a run and won state. That’s gonna be my most memorable moment ever.”
With four years of Oakland high football and a high school career coming to a close for these three seniors, the work continues for Oakland’s football team — and Hepborn, Bell and Lovinski continue to lead by example.
“We are proud of all our players accomplishments, especially our seniors,” said Coach Creasy. “They represented their families, our school and Rutherford County well throughout their playing careers.”