By Bill Sorrell
Along with being defending state champions and the No. 1 ranked 6A team in the state with a double-digit winning streak, there is another source of motivation for Murfreesboro Oakland.
The team motto has made coaches and players cry, “Squad Up.”
“When we are on that field we are all together, no separation,” said Patriots running back B.J. Connard before their 35-8 victory over Germantown on Friday in Germantown.
The motto came from a tragedy.
On Sept. 1, 2018, former Oakland running back Michael Lee Roper, 19, was murdered in the parking lot of Oaklands Park Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Murfreesboro.
Roper was a running back at Carson-Newman in 2017 before transferring to play for Tennessee State in 2018. His only season at Oakland, 2016, he rushed for 733 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Jalen Locklayer, a senior safety in 2018, was also shot and paralyzed. He is in a wheelchair.
Izaiha Deshon Gleaves fired seven shots at Roper tearing into his heart, arms, shin, abdomen. Locklayer was also struck by bullets fired from Gleaves’ gun.
Players had left a party and were in the parking lot when an argument erupted, allegedly over a woman. Gleaves was charged with second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder.
When Oakland won its fourth state championship last year, 37-0 over Whitehaven, players handed Locklayer the Gold Ball trophy. He was on the sideline in his wheelchair. It was the first game he had attended after his injuries. He had been an all-area safety as a junior. He is trying to learn to walk again.
After the shooting Oakland head coach Kevin Creasy brought in a speaker to talk with the team.
“He talked about when he was in the military how they just squaded up no matter what bad thing happened to them. They always came together as a squad and they always said ‘Squad Up.’ Everybody knew what that meant,” said Creasy.
Roper’s memory lives on.
“We are still close to his mom (Michelle Roberts). She still comes and supports us,” said Creasy.
She has had a lot to support.
Averaging 72 points a game including an 86-14 win over Kenwood in Week Two, the Patriots are winning by an average 63 points.
“They are a good team across the board. That is why they are winning the games like they are winning them. They haven’t had anybody give them a close game,” said Germantown head coach Tommy Ferrill, whose team got the closest to Oakland this season. “It wasn’t close enough.”
Winning their 17th straight, the Patriots (4-0) scored the first time they got the ball after foiling a Red Devils’ fake punt that had been practiced all week.
From the Germantown 12, Connard ran for the touchdown with 9:29 left in the first quarter. Trey Turk put the Patriots ahead 7-0.
A 9-yard sack of Germantown quarterback T. J. Tate by Colby Sloan had put the Red Devils near their own goal line.
“When we came out and scored on our first play with B.J. in his first game back in a couple of weeks that helped us get a lot of momentum. When we get momentum I don’t think there are a lot teams that can stop us,” said Oakland 6-5 senior quarterback Kody Sparks, who is playing his first season after moving from Fishers, Indiana, in January.
Connard was returning after an ankle injury. He would later leave the game after suffering another ankle injury.
The Patriots’ multiple, 3-4 defense would limit Germantown to 8 first downs. Oakland had 11.
A 7-yard sack of Tate by Mikhael Holman would force Germantown punter John Paul Penn to kick from his 4 on the Red Devils’ second possession.
Operating the Wing-T offense, Sparks threw a 31-yard pass to Holman, also a tight end, for a 13-0 lead which Turk upped to 14-0 with 5:46 left in the first quarter.
“Because of our defense we were able to hit some wide open receivers and had a couple of guys run the ball for us pretty good too,” said Creasy.
Runs by Jaysean Menafee and Connard had taken the Patriots from the 43 to the 31.
Throughout the game the Red Devils (1-3) got yardage-eating runs from T.J. Dorsey, an impressive kickoff return from Mike King and a career-high 55-yard punt by Penn.
King’s 23-yard return went to the Germantown 27 before Dorsey ran two plays to the 35. Facing 4th and 2, a pass interference penalty gave Germantown its first first down of the game at the 50 with 3:28 left in the first quarter. Rushes by King got as close as the Oakland 44.
A jarring tackle by the Red Devils’ Dannie Towles later stopped Connard at the Oakland 46. Towles and Gerald Salter then made another stop.
Penn’s 55-yard punt came with 9:45 left in the second quarter rolling to the Oakland 27.
From the 29, Sparks thew a 71-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Patterson for a 20-0 lead with 8:55 left in the second. Turk made it 21-0.
Two runs by Marrieon Claybrooks set up Penn who made a first down at the Red Devils 31. Held on fourth down, Penn kicked a 45-yard punt.
The Red Devils would get close to scoring in the second. A 15-yard run by Dorsey and Tate’s 5 yard run got to the 10. Oakland’s defense forced 4th and 5 and Izzy Cobos’ 25-yard field goal was blocked.
A 59-yard pass from Sparks to Holman led to a 4-yard touchdown run by Antonio Patterson for a 28-0 halftime lead after Turk’s extra point. Marcus Askew had tackled Holman short of the goal line.
“It’s all a joking matter. We try to make fun of them a little bit when they get hawked (stopped) on that goal line,” said Sparks said of Holman.
“At the end of the day he knows that he has got to go the extra two yards and put it in the end zone.”
It wouldn’t take long for Oakland to get half of its scoring average.
Tim Pannell ran 67 yards before Germantown defensive back Brandon Partee tackled him short of the goal. Sparks then tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to De’Arre McDonald, an Ole Miss commit, for a 34-0 lead which Turk quickly made 35 at 9:57 of the third.
“He is pretty good at making stuff happen. He is a corner back but we put him at receiver a little bit,” said Sparks.
King and Tate made things happen for the Red Devils in the fourth quarter.
Tate threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to King, who has 4.4 speed in the 40, with 5:34 left. Penn ran the 2-point conversion, his second of the season with his first against KIPP in the season opener.
“It was late in the game but it inspired us,” said Penn. “I am glad that we put something on the board but we were very limited on who we could throw to and how long we could throw and how much time we had to pass due to their defense being very skilled.”
A junior, King said that his touchdown “felt really good” to get momentum going although it was late.
“We kept fighting to the end. At halftime Coach told us to keep fighting don’t let them beat us up. Coming into the second half we took what he said and put it on the field. We came out from halftime played like Coach said and hit them in the mouth,” said King.
Oakland came to Germantown with the No. 1 ranking target on its back. “There’s always pressure. We can’t sneak up on anybody like we did last year,” said Creasy.
Sparks said, “Being No. 1 in the state doesn’t mean anything. It means we have to work harder. We go in as prepared as possible with our coaching staff. We go into every game with the mindset that we are going to win. So far it’s been happening.”
Penn said, “Oakland is a very good team. They have a lot of skill. They have some great coaches. They have a tradition just like we do. It showed tonight.”
Ferrill said the Red Devils are trying to get to the status the Patriots are.
“We have got to keep working. We are not there yet. We have to practice better because it is obvious that we play like we practice. We left some points on the board. We had some situations where we could have gotten some stops and didn’t. That is why they are defending state champs and we are not. We have to learn to play better.
“We needed to take advantage of the few opportunities we had and do a better job of getting off the field on defense. They are very talented and are well coached. It would be nice to have 14 coaches also.”
Oakland had 353 yards total offense, with Sparks completing 5 of 14 passes for 164 yards. Pannell gained 78 of Oakland’s 189 rushing yards on three carries while Victor Stephenson rushed for 34 yards, Brandon Connard 25, Antonio Patterson 24, B.J. Connard 14, Menafee 10.
The Red Devils had 148 yards total offense, 83 passing, 65 rushing. Tate completed 6 of 14 passes. Germantown got its rushing yards on 30 combined carries.
The week before Sparks had a strong passing game throwing for 4 touchdowns and rushing for another in a 69-16 victory over Siegel.
“Kody isn’t just a real tall guy who has a good arm. He is very productive as far as being a leader who takes control of the huddle. His accuracy is amazing. There were some balls tonight that should have been caught that could have gone for long touchdowns,” said Creasy.
With offers from North Alabama, Northern Iowa, University of Tennessee-Martin, Kent State and discussions with Duke and Purdue, Sparks’ ability is God-given he said.
“My inspiration is from my family (his parents are Ron and Kelly Sparks). They have always been pushing me to do my best and put me in any situation that I need to succeed. They tell me to give all the credit to God. I use that for motivation.”
His favorite Bible verse is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
“A lot of people would just say that but for me I think of that as very true and (because of it) you can really do a lot.”
Sparks’ biggest strength is knowing defenses and being able to use his arm to fit into tight spaces, finding the open receiver.
“The whole offensive line is stepping up even if they didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. I am getting time which is helping our receivers get open and catch balls.”
He didn’t know how the Red Devils would respond to a Wing-T.
“There was a lot of stuff they were unsure about and we definitely opened a lot of weak spots on their defense. We had a lot of guys open. A couple of them I missed. There were a lot of missed opportunities. I had a couple of passes I could have back or hit somebody different. We had a couple of dropped balls.
“We have to have a lot better practice this week and be a lot sharper but next week we will be better,” said Sparks.
Oakland plays at Region 3-6A rival Cookeville (1-3). Germantown hosts Olive Branch (1-2). Both games begin at 7 p.m.
Although the Red Devils had a week of energetic practices, they came out flat said Dorsey.
“We had a few mistakes here and there. We have got to clean up our blocking offensively and secondary on defense. We missed assigned blocking and left holes wide open. I was expecting them to come out hard. They were real physical. They are a good team.”
Taking from the game, Dorsey, a senior, has to “build my mentality” from twice being on a Region 7-6A championship team which was 23-2 over 2017 and 2018 including a 22-game regular season winning streak, to “learning how to stay the course, getting my recruitment better and learning how to be a college player. Even if you don’t see what is ahead of you, stay with it,” he said.
Walking under the Red Pride arch that leads to the field, Dorsey said, “It’s really a standard, not just a saying. We try to live up to the standard.”
Expecting a challenge, Creasy said, “Germantown has a lot of good tradition and a lot of good athletes. You can tell they have been in the weight room and they do a good job training. You are playing an unfamiliar opponent on the road, some guys you don’t see year in and year out. I thought we did a good job of preparation. There is a lot we can still clean up. We are not where we want to be right now. Nine guys might be doing good, two of them are screwing up. We want all 11 singing off the same sheet of music. We are going to have a good film session this weekend.”
Sparks said, “We had a good game plan coming in. We showed up and did all right.”
The Patriots are a team similar to last year but have sustained injuries.
“We are having to fight through some adversity. That is the kind of stuff you hate to see but at the same time it makes you a better team,” said Creasy, a graduate of UT-Martin.
Impressed with the Red Devils’ size and speed, B.J. Connard said the Patriots play for each other.
“We have a lot of seniors. We all work together to make things happen. We dogs. We are going to get after you.”
Creasy said, “We are a gritty bunch, kind of undersized, skinny fast guys. People like the way that we play.”
They have relied on three-year starter linebacker/tight end Aaron Moore who has offers from Oklahoma State and Arkansas, offensive/defensive lineman Jackson Riley, a three-year starter on the offensive line.
“Aaron Moore always stands out for us,” said Creasy, also bragging on McDonald who had “a pretty solid game” along with Quinton Bucziyski, a linebacker getting college attention. “He is a good middle linebacker.”
Stephenson is also a playmaker.
“We can give him the ball and he can do whatever. Play him at quarterback. He can run the ball and do a lot of stuff that I don’t necessarily do at quarterback,” said Sparks.
Brandon Connard, the younger brother of B.J. Connard, is getting experience that Sparks said will help him “be good once he gets caught up.
We were relying on B.J. quite a bit before he got hurt. I like that we have some young guys step in and make good plays.”
Turk’s touchbacks were effective in making the Red Devils face a long field. Kicking coach Vladimir Borombozin kicked for New Mexico.
“He does a great job working those kickers. We did a really good job punting, a really good job kicking off and played the field position,” said Creasy.
King, Akon and Tate making completions under pressure impressed Dorsey.
The Red Devils “have a lot of young players who are trying to step up and reach their potential,” said Penn.
“I think they (Red Devils) show up every day ready to get better. We’ll work to be 1-0. This is very cliché but each play is the most important play of the game. That is how we have to treat it right now. We are not doing that. We are giving away too many plays. We have to be more consistent and do a better job across the boards and keep improving.”
With the move from Indiana to Murfreesboro when his mother got a career advancement opportunity, Sparks said playing in Tennessee is a lot different than playing in Indiana.
“I am not used to having an indoor facility to go in. I’m not used to traveling to North Carolina during the summer for a 7-on-7 passing tournament. You can tell athletes are a lot more devoted to football. They want everybody to get better. It seems like everybody wants a future in football. They don’t just do it to pass the time.”
Ferrill would like the Red Devils to have some of the facilities other schools with top programs do.
“We have to have a serious upgrade here. We are still working with stuff from the late 1980s,” said Ferrill. “It’s what we have and we are making the best of it. But our kids definitely deserve better. We have a lot of good players. We have great kids.”
One of five captains, Penn said, “I’m a senior this year. I want to be an example for these younger guys. With the same schedule next year they are going to have to go to Oakland. That will be very challenging. I keep it up in practice and playing every game to the best of my ability because you never know when it could be your last game.”
Roper and Locklayer didn’t know on that fateful Labor Day weekend that they had already played their last game.