October 22, 2013 9:56:53 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
Hunter Anderson could sense the questions were bubbling.
"What was wrong with the Heritage Academy football team?" "How were the Patriots going to turn things around and save their season?"
Tied at 20 with Leake Academy entering the fourth quarter, Anderson sensed an opportunity to leave those questions percolating in the heads of all the doubters. The result was a performance that helped put Heritage Academy back on track.
Anderson rushed for 101 yards and had touchdown runs of 12 and 37 yards in the final quarter that propelled Heritage Academy to a 32-20 victory.
For his efforts, Anderson is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
"Step up and make a play," said Anderson, when asked what he thought when the Patriots received the play call prior to his touchdown runs. "In the game, I don't even think about it. I just think that we have to execute and play to the best of our ability. In the game, I am thinking we have to step up as a team and make a play."
Heritage Academy (7-2) needed a bounce-back performance coming off a 32-22 loss at Pillow Academy. With Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II games against Starkville Academy and Magnolia Heights and a game against Division I Madison-Ridgeland Academy remaining on the regular-season schedule, Anderson and his teammates knew regaining any momentum would be crucial
"From last week, we knew we had to do a lot better than the week before because we did not play to the top of our ability at Pillow in the fourth quarter," Anderson said. "We made too many mistakes, and we knew we had to come out and convert on everything we did, and we did that.
"We knew we had to get this game because it (would have been) a huge drop in attitude and it would have hurt the whole team and probably lose confidence. I think it is a confidence-booster going into a conference game this week against Starkville Academy. I think we played about as good as we have all year in the fourth quarter. We had one mistake between me and Austin Fitch, but that was really it. The defense played great in the fourth quarter."
Anderson also credited the offensive line for its play late in the game. He said his teammates up front gave him holes he "probably could drive a truck through" and gave him easy paths to the end zone. The second run, though, was a little longer and forced him to follow a different route. Typically a between-the-tackles runner, Anderson came across and used a block by Walker Brown and bounced things outside. He toed the sideline and escaped one final tackler to secure the score the sealed the deal.
"I think that says how strong our team is that we were able to come out in the second half and execute," Anderson said after a first half in which the team committed four turnovers.
Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe praised an effort in which Logan Bell and Cody Mordecai caught touchdown passes from Austin Fitch and Parker Short also had a touchdown run. He said it will be crucial for the Patriots to get as many of their skill-position players involved the rest of the way. Having a runner like Anderson who can complement Short is just one way he feels Heritage Academy can keep defenses honest.
"We were able to get the ball in his hands on offense and he was able to make some really solid runs," Donahoe said. "I thought we did a great job of getting the ball in different playmakers' hands throughout the night. We had a number of kids who scored, and Hunter really made some good runs when he had to."
Anderson's second touchdown of the game was the team's second of the season that went for more than 30 yards. Donahoe said the Patriots' passing game helped open lanes for all of the running backs and they did their job taking advantage. He said Fitch, a senior, did a good job of running the read option and getting the ball to the right people at the right times.
Donahoe also praised the defense for playing hard. He said linebackers Cayden Upton, Anderson, and Jace Caldwell were solid, as was the front. He said the secondary showed its inexperience due to injuries, but he feels that is an area the Patriots can address.
With a make-or-break game against Starkville Academy (3-5, 1-3 Class AAA, Division II) set for 7 p.m. Friday in Columbus, Donahoe knows the Patriots will have to build on their last performance the rest of the season, which it why it was so nice to see Anderson and the Patriots answer the call.
"The chips fell the way they needed to for that game to be important for us," Donahoe said. "If we go to Greenwood (Pillow Academy) and we win, I am not sure we put as much emphasis on having success against that team. We probably look a little more ahead to the Starkville Academy game just simply by nature.
"The chips fell just where they needed to fall for that to become a important game for us because just like we told our guys, North AAA everybody else was at our game Friday night. We felt it was more important to be playing than to be sitting at home. We needed to play, to get better, to see ourselves get better, and to be physical. When the game was over, that is what we said to our guys. We told them you didn't sit at home and look what you did and accomplished. You might not understand it, but that was a big win. It was as big of a win as we have had this year simply because of the circumstances that surrounded it. That game was very important to set the tone for what we want to be as the season moves through the last three weeks.
"We have to win football games. When you get to this point in the season and you have two games at home that determine your postseason scenario, you can't ask for anything more than that. That is it. Just go win. Just win and it will take care of itself."
Anderson said Heritage Academy knows what it has to do and will be focused on getting it done. He also hopes he has more opportunities to make the plays that push the Patriots closer to their goal of defending their MAIS Class AAA, Division II state title.
"This conference game is huge. It is make or break, pretty much," Anderson said. "I think (getting a win) on the road. That is huge, and making big plays everywhere in the fourth quarter, I think that will really boost our confidence going into the game against Starkville Academy. ... Hopefully I respond like I should"
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.