November 4, 2012 1:12:31 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
PELAHATCHIE -- A little trickeration and some guts.
The mixture isn't a secret concoction Barrett Donahoe has cooked up in the dark passages of the Heritage Academy field house.
Instead, Heritage Academy used a little razzle dazzle at the end of the first half and a catch by a playmaker good enough to be on SportsCenter's top plays to keep its season alive.
Cade Lott connected with Parker Dunaway on a touchdown pass just before halftime, the Heritage Academy defense bowed up and didn't allow a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and Dunaway made a second diving touchdown catch to lift Heritage Academy to a 21-17 victory against East Rankin Academy in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division 2 semifinals at Moody Davis Field.
Heritage Academy, which won its fourth game in a row to improve to 6-5, will play Magnolia Heights Academy, which beat Starkville Academy 40-28, for the state title on Friday at Mississippi College in Clinton.
"This is awesome," Donahoe said. "This is a realization of a dream for a bunch of kids, parents, and supporters that felt for a long time that this was the group that could do it, and they were the group that could break the mold and be the next team to go to the state championship.
"We're going to preach it all week. Don't be content. We have four more quarters to play, and we have four more quarters to win."
Heritage Academy led 14-0 at halftime but slowly lost control of the game in the second half. A 61-yard touchdown pass from Hayes Roden to Colby Crotwell helped cut the deficit in half. A second Roden-to-Crotwell connection -- this time on fourth-and-5 -- went for 33 yards to tie the game with 9 minutes, 39 seconds to play. Heritage Academy went three and out on its next series before East Rankin Academy looked to put the game away. The Patriots used eight plays -- and benefited from two Heritage Academy 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalties -- to have a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. A 1-yard gain, a low snap that resulted in a 2-yard loss, and an incompletion that went off the hands of an East Rankin Academy wide receiver set up a 21-yard field goal by J.D. Houston that made it 17-14 with 5:20 to play.
Heritage Academy didn't score on its next possession, but Lott hooked up with Hudson Bean on a 37-yard pass play on third-and-8 for a play Donahoe said sparked his team.
Following an interception by East Rankin Academy, Heritage Academy's defense allowed only 4 yards and Donahoe used his timeouts to get the ball back with 1:45 to go. An 18-yard punt gave Heritage Academy a first down at the East Rankin Academy 46.
"We had an opportunity 17-14. All we had to do was run out the clock," East Rankin Academy coach Matt Butts said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to get it done. They did a great job of fighting until the very end. I wish them the best of luck next week. I hope they can go up there and finish the deal at MC."
On second down, Lott and Dunaway paired up for one of the team's biggest plays of the season. The senior quarterback pump-faked to give Dunaway a chance to get behind the defense. He then laid the ball out so the speedy wide receiver could run under it.
Dunaway said he ran a little decoy route that is supposed to wait for Lott to pump and draw the safety.
"It worked to perfection," Dunaway said. "He threw a great ball and I was able to go get it. I was just trying to make a play for my team."
Lott credited his offensive line for giving him time to throw. He waited for Dunaway to make his move and unleashed the ball.
"I threw it just like any regular deep ball. I just threw it up there and let him run under it and catch it," Lott said.
Heritage Academy's defense did the rest. Bean had an interception to end East Rankin Academy's next-to-last drive. Heritage Academy just missed getting a first down to run out the clock and had to punt the ball back with 37.1 seconds to play. But Mark Thatcher had a pass breakup on first down, and Roden was whistled for two illegal forward passes, which cost the Patriots two downs. An incompletion on fourth down set off the celebration on the Heritage Academy sideline.
"We fought through it and fought through adversity," Dunaway said. "It shows our character. Both teams played a great team tonight, but my team, we got it done. We did a great job."
Dunaway's first diving catch helped put Heritage Academy in position to challenge Magnolia Heights for the state title. Heritage Academy got the ball back with 17.6 seconds to go in the second quarter and didn't hesitate. Bean took a direct snap out of the Wildcat and handed the football to Miller Puckett, who flipped it to Lott. The senior quarterback used a block from Puckett, stepped back, and led Dunaway into the end zone for a diving catch that pushed the Patriots into the locker room with a 14-0 lead.
"They were great throws by Cade Lott," Dunaway said. "He led me only where I could get them. You have to go get it. That is my job. I expect that kind of effort on every single player on my team, and I am going to give it back to them when I have a chance. I know any of the other wide receivers would have gone and got the ball for our team."
Donahoe praised assistant coach Jimmy Hicks for suggesting the play, and credited Lott and Dunaway for working so well together.
"Those were two huge throws by Cade. Those were two great catches in the end zone," Donahoe said. "I didn't even know he caught the last one until the official raised his hands. It was phenomenal."
In a way, the timing on the pass plays was fitting considering they are two of 14 seniors on the team, and part of a class that has aspired to greatness.
On Friday, that group and the program showed how far it has come on a night when so many things went against them.
"It is a great feeling," Lott said. "I have been dreaming about it with this team. We have been together since sixth grade. Now that we have made it, it is awesome. We have got to go finish now. We had 12 more quarters. Now we have four more quarters."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.