October 28, 2012 1:16:03 AM
GREENWOOD -- The names haven't changed. The uniforms remain the same, as do the coaches.
But the transformation that has occurred in the past three weeks has allowed a Heritage Academy football team teetering on the edge of an early end to the season to become a playoff team.
Cade Lott rushed for 122 yards and was one of four offensive players to score a touchdown Friday night in Heritage Academy's 35-7 victory against Pillow Academy in a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, District 1 game at Bill Davis Field.
The victory helped Heritage Academy (5-5) secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2005. It will play Friday at East Rankin Academy, the No. 1 seed from District 2. Magnolia Heights' 27-6 victory against Washington School on Friday helped it earn the No. 1 seed from District 1. It will play host to Starkville Academy on Friday. The winners of those games will advance to the Division II title game in Clinton.
"It is fantastic," Donahoe said. "We're going to go in as a No. 2 seed, and we're going to go in and give it all we have got. I think that realization of getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 is phenomenal for this group."
Heritage Academy took that step by earning just its fourth victory -- second in a row -- in 21 meetings in the series. The 35 points were the most the Patriots have scored against the Mustangs. They scored 32 last season.
Heritage Academy (3-3 MAIS Class AAA, District 1, Division II) could have had much more, but Donahoe inserted his second string early in the second half. The final 24 minutes were played with a running clock.
"The thing I will always continue to say is work ethic," Donahoe said. "The coaches on our coaching staff continue to coach, and our players continue to do the things we ask them to do regardless if we had a good Friday night the week before or whether we had a lot of success on the practice field that day. They continue to come every day and do the little things we have asked them to do, and it has transformed them into a winning team."
Donahoe knew the team was athletic and that it has playmakers when he arrived. He said it has been a process trying to get the players into the right positions and to decide which approach works best. Once Heritage Academy made changes the Sunday following a loss to Madison-Ridgeland Academy, things started to take shape. Keep in mind Heritage Academy allowed 192 rushing yards in a 20-7 loss to Caledonia on Aug. 31 and 420 total yards in a 33-10 loss to MRA on Sept. 7. Donahoe said that day was the turning point for the season.
"We didn't have an identity," Donahoe said. "We said we're going to create one. We hashed out so many things that day. We said, 'What is it going to take for us to be a good football team?' Since that point, we have played really good football, even in two losses (to Jackson Academy and Magnolia Heights). It has really shown the determination by everybody involved."
The Patriots' confidence is almost palpable. From Lott, a senior who split time at quarterback last season, to Puckett, another senior who suffered a season-ending knee injury last season, Heritage Academy is playing with a new-found confidence. Victories against Oak Hill Academy, Washington School, and Pillow Academy have helped the team realize the first goal on a list Donahoe put in the locker room to remind the players what they could achieve.
"We changed a little bit at practice over the last three weeks, and got a lot of confidence from the last two weeks," Lott said. "We were 2-5, but these last three weeks we have turned it on and have been a lot better football team."
Senior wide receiver Parker Dunaway, who scored on a 2-yard run in a 28-point second quarter that was the difference, said it was extremely satisfying to see the team dominate in the past three games. He said the coaches, the players, and everybody involved with the program has come together and realized they don't want the season to end.
"The players have really realized a sense of urgency," Dunaway said. "We weren't in a spot where we could get into the playoffs before, but now we have realized we need to step up, and we have done that.
"We have always known we had the potential. We always wanted to do it, but it kind of got real for us when we realized our conference record was really bad and it probably wasn't going to get us into the playoffs if it stayed like that."
Dunaway referenced the MRA loss as the trigger that lit the transformation. He said Heritage Academy didn't lose that game because MRA was a better team. He said the Patriots lost because they didn't prepare like they needed to and they didn't have the right mind-set.
Things are different now.
"We got killed. We just got destroyed," Dunaway said of the MRA game. "After that slap in the face, we were like, 'We don't like this. We don't want to get beat like this anymore. It is time to get serious and start playing.' It was kind of a wake-up call for us."
Puckett, who rushed for 81 yards on 10 carries, said the Patriots made sure they went to practice after the MRA loss with a new attitude. Even though it lost to Jackson Academy and Magnolia Heights, Heritage Academy was in both games and gained confidence from its performances. Puckett said each week helped the Patriots take another step forward and want to get better.
"We came into the season thinking they're just going to give it to us," Puckett said. "We realized we have to earn everything we get. We got ourselves together and we're putting up yards, getting scores, and executing."
Pillow Academy (0-9, 0-6) avoided the shutout in the fourth quarter when quarterback Thomas Dillard hit Kyle McKay with a 16-yard touchdown pass. Kevin Phillips added the extra point.
That score didn't diminish the sense of accomplishment for Heritage Academy. With eight quarters of work to be done, the Patriots know they are capable to earning some hardware. Dunaway said it's not improbable that a program that looked to be on the outside looking in is now in prime position to realize a championship goal.
"Everybody just kind of realizes we do have a chance and we can do something special at Heritage Academy, which hasn't been done in a while," Dunaway said. "I don't know the last time Heritage Academy won a state championship, but that is our goal. We want to do something special for our school and our classmates. We want to do something that will be remembered. We want to be remembered for being a great football team, not just another average Heritage Academy football team."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.