SPRINGDALE, Ark. (BP) — In one sense, when the Shiloh Saints take the field for tonight’s first-round game in the Arkansas high school football playoffs, they’ll be in familiar territory. The Saints have won three straight state titles and four in the last five years, so they have plenty of playoff experience.
But in another sense, Shiloh will assume a role that it hasn’t had in a long time: underdog.
Stumbling to a 5-5 record this year, the Saints were a young, inexperienced team and they suffered a barrage of injuries. Whereas in recent years, Shiloh head coach Josh Floyd consistently had to encourage his players to be humble, that lesson has come a lot easier in a season like this one.
“This year we’ve taken some blows and we’ve had some distractions,” Floyd said. “We’ve tried to learn those things, even when you’re having a tough season. The truth is, a lot of times you learn more when things aren’t going well and you’ve got to rely on God and rely on your teammates a little bit more. It’s not necessarily the fun way to do it, but that’s usually the truth.”
Shiloh Christian is the school started in 1976 by Cross Church (formerly First Baptist Church) in Springdale, Ark. A fledgling football program for years, Shiloh grew into one of the nation’s elite football schools beginning in the mid-1990s under the leadership of Gus Malzahn — now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn University.
Malzahn led the team to consecutive state titles in 1998 and 1999. Floyd was the 1998 team’s quarterback, passing for an astonishing 5,878 yards that year before moving on to a collegiate career at Ouachita Baptist University.
“About the mid-1990s, we decided that we really wanted to try to become a national football program,” Ronnie Floyd, pastor of the church and Josh’s father, said on the PBS Frontline documentary “Football High” that featured the Saints. “And with that, everything began to advance.
“How do you explain what’s happened?” he continued. “You’ve got this little football program that has emerged to the national stage. The only way I can explain it is the favor of God. That’s it.”
After graduating from Ouachita, Josh Floyd spent a year as a student assistant at Arkansas under Houston Nutt, then a year as an offensive coordinator at another high school before returning to Shiloh, where he is in his eighth year as coach.
Floyd’s job became more challenging this year after the graduation of Kiehl Frazier, one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks who was recruited by almost every big-time NCAA school. Frazier chose Auburn and is the middle of his freshman season there.
While the Saints have grown accustomed to winning in recent years, and while the PBS documentary featured Shiloh in a segment titled “Winning is Everything,” Floyd said his program is about much more than victories on the field.
“Obviously we want to win and we want to be champions,” Floyd said. “‘Champions’ is a word we use a lot at Shiloh. Our philosophy is to develop champions, and we say it in this order: spiritually, academically and athletically. That’s why I feel like Shiloh’s a great place, because I think we’re able to really do all three of those things.”
Floyd certainly wants his team to win championships, saying that such opportunities are valuable experiences for his players. “But I think the key is, we want to be able to use that influence in a positive way,” he added, “and hopefully lead people to the Lord.”
This year has given Floyd and the Saints that opportunity. A loss on Friday to a heavily favored and undefeated Heber Springs team (which beat Shiloh 36-17 in the first week of the season) would give the Saints a losing record to finish the year, something they haven’t experienced since 2002, before Floyd’s tenure (Shiloh finished 3-7 that year).
“I think people have wanted to see how we’re going to react during a tough situation,” Floyd said. “And I think our kids and our school have reacted in a positive way. We’ve had grace, even in defeat.”
Regardless of the outcome of this year’s playoffs, Floyd and the Saints will continue their efforts to build champions — both on the football field and for the Lord.
“The things you remember the most are when you’ve had times to lead people to Christ,” Floyd said. “At the end of the day, you hope they come to the Lord and leave here wanting to make a difference.”
Tim Ellsworth is editor of BP Sports, on the Web at www.bpsports.net, and director of news and media relations at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
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