By Billy Watkins
They were the bully of Mississippi high school football in 2021.
The Greenville Christian Saints defeated MRA, Jackson Prep, Jackson Academy and Hartfield Academy by a combined 178-61. They also beat Oak Grove – ranked No. 1 in the state at the time – 48-41. A Class 6A public school, Oak Grove has won more games than any Mississippi program in the past five seasons.
The coaches and players who are burned at the stake have exceptional memories.
“We know these teams are going to really want to beat us,” Saints coach Jon Reed McLendon said. “We will get everyone’s best shot.”
And they got MRAs Thursday night in Madison at 48-6. (Greenville Christian won last year, 58-32.) Jackson Prep will get his chance next Friday night in Greenville.
Know this: When McLendon helped set the 2022 schedule, he didn’t have to include those four private schools he led. After all, he lost 22 seniors from last year’s squad. Eighteen now play college football.
But dodging them never occurred to him.
“We never want to be accused of having our licks last year and then hiding,” McLendon said before the season.
After Thursday night’s game, McLendon did his best to look forward, to remind himself that this was a game against a powerhouse program that has won three straight state championships and is coached by already-member Herbert Davis. of the MAIS Hall of Fame.
“It’s definitely hard to swallow because I believe we’re better than that,” McLendon said, standing on the pitch half an hour after the game. “We have talent. We just need to gain experience under our belt in certain positions. Eventually we will be what we want to be. This group will work and do whatever you ask them to do.
“I was happy with the effort — we certainly didn’t give up. But the effort is not enough. You must run. And we must persevere. This will write our history this year.
And deep down, as McLendon shared with me in an interview the day before the game, he knows that Greenville Christian – the school and the football program – has recently won important battles that few people outside of the city know.
Four years ago, this is a program that used second-hand playing uniforms from another school. On Thursday night, the players donned high-end Nike uniforms.
“What our football team has done over the past two seasons has revitalized our entire school,” said McLendon, whose 2020 team went 11-1. “We have added many new children to the Greenville Christian family. But we’ve also seen a resurgence of interest from people who graduated here years ago but kind of walked away from school. Now I get calls from people saying, ‘I haven’t been to a game in years. I want to come this year, see the campus again.
“Our children have done a great job representing the school over the past two years. It was a big contract. »
About a dozen of those players came from different parts of the state to watch the season opener. One of them was Mississippi Gatorade’s 2021 Player of the Year, quarterback DJ Smith, now at Jones Junior College. As a senior, Smith threw for 2,516 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 940 yards and 14 scores.
“I had to be here,” Smith said, standing on the Saint’s sideline. “I miss it. I had to come and see my boys. The game is not going too well at the moment, but this team will improve.
Smith was one of many talented players who transferred to Greenville Christian at the start of the 2020 season, when the Greenwood-Leflore County School District canceled the football season at the height of the Covid outbreak. Most private schools continued to play.
Greenville Christian has won back-to-back Class 3A state titles and finished 2021 ranked No. 74 nationally by MaxPreps.
Breathtaking when you consider the Saints were 4-6 in 2019 and McLendon had to drop out to get enough players to start the 2020 season, before transfers arrived, just wanting a place to play football. After all, a person only has one chance to create high school memories.
Now in his ninth year as head coach, McLendon hasn’t had to be told about Greenville Christian’s past struggles. He lived them as a student and offensive lineman.
“Our senior year we went 6-5 and that’s the only winning season I can remember.”
This program is personal to McLendon in more ways than one. In addition to his duties as head coach, he teaches Bible and physical education classes. He is also pastor of New Beginnings Fellowship in Greenville.
While he appreciates people in the area talking about the 23 football wins of the past two seasons, McLendon also wants people to know about the wins that have happened off the pitch during that time.
“We had about eight children who made their profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” he said. “That’s… those are the real wins, right?”