Much like the school’s football program, the Live Oak boys is experiencing an elevation of program expectations, thanks to Zach Miller.
The Eagles have qualified for the state playoffs two years running and now are not only searching for a victory in the playoffs, but they’re out to host a first-round game.
Last season ended at 9-13-6 with a bitter loss to Belaire in penalty kicks to eliminate Live Oak in the first round of the playoffs. The 2015-16 season ended with the Eagles on the wrong end of a 2-1 decision to Central LaFourche.
Despite the heartbreaking endings in his first two seasons, Miller is not short on confidence.
“I tell the boys our goal is to get better every day,” Miller said. “Be it in the weight room, on practice field, whatever it may be. But as far as something tangible and something we can shoot for, we want to do something that’s never been done here before.”
Under Miller, Live Oak has finished with the two best power ratings in school history: 18th in 2015-16 and 17th in 2016-17.
For Live Oak to host a first-round playoff game means the Eagles would have to finish 16th or better in Division II, which is a mark Live Oak fell painstakingly short of last year.
Last year the Eagles soared to as high as 10th, but a rocky finish was costly. The Eagles scored a big win against third-ranked University High in Baton Rouge, but followed the upset with an eight-game winless streak.
For Live Oak to make the jump to hosting a first round playoff game, Miller says mindset is everything.
“We have to expect to win, every time out,” stated Miller. “When I came in, I changed some things and let them know that it’s not just good enough to be on the team. Let’s make this into something. Let’s make it into a program. Let’s make this something that we strive to keep growing every year, even down into the middle school and youth groups.”
By all accounts, Live Oak has the means to accomplish Miller’s goal. The Eagles are a very experienced, senior and junior heavy squad.
The Eagles will be captained by Cole Schultz, a central midfielder who will move around. Miller wants Schultz to be where the action is happening because he is a decisive and intelligent player who makes smart moves with and without the ball in addition to being a talented athlete.
“He sees the game well and he is able to pick out when he can help us up top in more of a striker position and that really helps us,” Miller said.
On the other end of the pitch, senior Nate Bermes will command the goal in his senior year after entering in a position battle all last season. Despite the fact that players are expected to score in penalty kicks, Bermes has held on to a belief that he did not meet the standard and according to Miller has used that as fuel to improve.
Live Oak is replacing three out of four backline players, but replacing them with juniors and seniors who have logged significant minutes. Juniors Christian Fritz and Nick Magee are two players stepping into the vacated roles and Miller is high on praise for them.
Miller stressed the importance of getting his team to spread the ball around. Having a turf field accommodates Miller’s preference of quick and short passes to keep possession but must be able to execute them on less-than-ideal wintery surfaces. Miller also preaches possession with a purpose, meaning Live Oak won’t stick to a base formation all year and have the players play keep away for 90 minutes. Each formation, each pass, and each run will all serve a purpose.
In the end, it may just all come together for a home game in February for Live Oak.
“Despite the players that we lost, I’m thrilled that this team has taken to the challenge,” Miller said. “They’ve said ‘This is our team now and we’re ready to go places that this program has never seen’.”
AT A GLANCE
2016-17 record: 9-13-6
Head coach: Zach Miller
Typical formation: Variable
Last playoff appearance: 2016-17 (Lost to Belaire 1-0 in the first round)
Home stadium: Eagles Nest
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Cole Schultz: Versatile player who can fill many different roles as the team requires him to. Very intelligent player who makes smart decisions with the ball. Miller sees Schultz as a game influencer.
Nate Bermes: Hardened goalkeeper motivated by his performance in Live Oak’s season-ending loss to Belaire in penalty kicks.
Christian Fritz: Junior that Miller is excited to see in a more expanded role. A natural defender, Fritz is rangy and has closing speed to erase any errant run by the opposition.
• Live Oak had plenty of eye-opening results last year: A win over University High, a 9-1 trouncing of Broadmoor, a tie at Lakeshore, and a scoreless draw against Baton Rouge High.
• Like Denham Springs and Walker, Live Oak plays on a turf surface which facilitates quick, accurate passes.