DEL CITY, Okla. (BP)–As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the scoreboard read 52-15.
Head coach John Merrell took off his headphones, shook hands and shared hugs with his assistants and walked across the field amid the throng of jubilant players and fans to congratulate the other team’s coaches and players for a game well played. A few moments later, his wife, Deani, joined him at midfield. The Christian Heritage Academy (CHA) cheerleaders — her “girls,” as she likes to call them — were among the most demonstrative as the Crusaders celebrated their 13th consecutive Oklahoma Christian School state football championship.
The Merrells, members of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., count themselves most fortunate. They have been married 34 years, have a loving family of four children and nine grandchildren and get to go to work together.
It’s that “working together” that gives the couple gratitude that God allows them to work with young people — young people who set themselves apart from most other high school students.
CHA has had a tradition of athletic and academic excellence since the school was established in 1972, with Merrell noting that there is no single secret to the school’s success.
“There’s no secret, but there are reasons why, and it starts with our administration,” Merrell said. “We’ve got a good athletic philosophy, and it’s passed down to the coaches. Also, our coaches have been together for a long time. That’s very important, and we work real well together; we all agree with the athletic philosophy.”
But the most important reason, John contends, is that “we never try to determine that we have had a successful season based on our won-loss record; we look at a bigger picture than that.
“We believe we can have a good Christian testimony; we really work hard on that during a game. We’ve had great parental support over the years. They really agree with what we’re trying to do, and they send us outstanding young men who are good citizens who work hard and do what they’re told to do. They didn’t just show up at football practice one day with that type of attitude; they’ve been taught that at home. So we can really expect a lot out of them because of that.”
Of course, having talented players is an added bonus.
“For our level of competition, we’ve had really good athletes,” Merrell agreed.
But, the Merrells also agree that maintaining a Christian witness is far more important than winning championships.
Deani Merrell, who has coached the CHA cheerleaders for 15 years, also has seen her share of success. Her squads have captured 11 national championships in Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders competitions.
The girls are very careful in planning their routines each year, Deani said.
“We watch what kind of music we use and are careful about what moves we put in, yet we are still able to compete with the top squads,” Deani said.
The CHA cheerleaders — a group of 23 — dress modestly and do not include provocative movements in their routines.
“I specifically remember one of my girls, Cami Hise, saying, ‘I can’t imagine doing that kind of stuff; what if my dad was in the stands and saw me?’” Deani recounted.
That all relates to being “in” the world and not “of” the world.
“We teach all of our players to be a Christian witness,” John said. “We have a simple saying — play hard and act right — but within that, to compete to be the very best you can be.
“Football is an aggressive game and you have to compete hard, but when the play is over, be a gentleman. You know, you ought to help those other guys up; you should never act haughty or arrogant. If you do something good, never draw attention to yourself.
“We talk about that all the time, although we certainly don’t have it mastered yet.”
CHA players are taught never to complain to the game officials.
“We teach the players not to complain to the officials, and we believe that coaches have to set that standard first,” Merrell said. “Those are areas that present a good witness to the other teams.
“After the game when we get comments from other teams or officials, I’m a lot more concerned that those comments are directed toward our conduct or our character than they are about how good a team we are. That means our players are acting right and our coaches are acting right toward others.
“Those things mean a lot to us. Of course, we’re not perfect, but it’s a reflection of what we’re trying to do. It does make a difference, and people notice it.”
John said the coach of one public school the Crusaders played this year posted a comment on a message board that Christian Heritage played like a Christian team should.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Merrell beamed. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad examples of the opposite at the collegiate and professional levels.”
Merrell has posted an impressive 204-42 record as a head coach.
“We probably played our most difficult schedule ever this year, looking at the records of our opponents,” Merrell said. “Several of them finished at 9-1. It made it very challenging, but it also made it a lot of fun to go to practice every day.”
So, why do the Crusaders continue to play an eight-man schedule, even though they obviously are the class of the class, if you will?
“We have just really gotten to the point to where [playing 11-man is] what we need to be doing,” Merrell said. “But, it’s very difficult to fill a schedule, because most of the public schools don’t have any open dates when their district play starts. The open dates are usually the first three weeks.”
The coach said CHA has petitioned the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association twice to be admitted as a member, a move which would make filling a schedule no problem, since the Crusaders would be assigned to a specific district.
“We tried twice to get the OSSAA to accept us, and the member schools have voted us down,” Merrell said. “I don’t think it’s a reflection on CHA, but I think there’s a perception that the private schools have an unfair advantage over the public schools. If we got into the OSSAA, we’d go in as a Class A school.”
As it is, the Crusaders played two 11-man games this year, losing one, a 28-20 decision to Washington. They defeated three of the four teams playing in the Class B semifinals, Morrison, 18-6; Burns Flat-Dill City, 42-26; and Pioneer, 32-22. Each of those three squads had 10-2 records heading into the semifinals.
The Merrells consider learning God’s Word as vital to their coaching. The football players all must memorize and quote a specific Scripture each week during the season to be eligible to play, and the cheerleaders have a devotional time before each practice and during national competitions and at summer camps.
“We have been memorizing Scripture for a long time,” Merrell said. “I want our kids to focus on the Lord before a game. It’s real simple for them. These guys are so sharp.”
Merrell’s Scripture memorization program, however, has begun to cost his pocketbook.
“I encouraged our players last year to memorize Proverbs 13 and Hosea 10:12, which is 25 verses, and if they did, I promised to cook them a steak dinner at the end of the year,” Merrell recounted. “It was a progression of memorizing two verses each week, and we had 10 guys who did that.
“This year, we had 19 guys who did it. So now I’m kind of worried how I’m going to get all of them into my house,” he laughed.
Merrell said he added Hosea 10:12, which says, “Sew for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till He comes and rains righteousness on you,” because the verse “tied in with our discussions this season on what it is to be a real man.”
The coach said he is excited that he is seeing the players use the verses they have memorized when certain situations come up off the field.
“They are beginning to use the verses they memorize in certain situations that come up away from football and school; that’s the way the Word of God is,” he said.
Deani Merrell’s work as a cheer coach first began as a volunteer.
“But, I fell in love with it. I love working with the girls,” she said. “I feel like it’s my ministry now, and as I got older, I wondered what the Lord would have me do, and I remember that He instructs the older women to teach the younger women to love their husbands, be the maker of a home and to love the Lord, so I knew that this is where my place was.”
The cheerleaders practice from 3:15-5:15 p.m. every day, unless it’s game day. They pump up spirit at both football and basketball games.
“When we go to Orlando in the summer, we attend Give Kids the World, sort of like the Make A Wish program, and the girls love to perform for the kids, visit with them and teach them chants and songs. That’s their favorite part of the year.”
Deani said her focus over the years has changed.
“When I first began, it was fun and exciting to go to national competitions and be with the girls,” she said. “But now, I love watching the changes which occur in girls who take part in cheerleading. This year, we’ve had seven girls saved. Just watching them grow into Christian young ladies and listening to their hearts and learning what the Lord is doing in their lives is very satisfying.
“That’s become really important to me; to minister more to the girls and let them know how much I love them and care about them. Then, seeing them being able to go out and share their faith with other people and go on and be the wives and mothers and young people that God wants them to be. …
“I want their heart to be turned toward the Lord and when they leave CHA to know no matter where they go, they want to walk with the Lord.”