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Heritage Academy begins playoff push Friday night


Adam Minichino



The Heritage Academy football team is eight quarters away from winning a state title. 


Let that thought sink in for a moment. 


The Heritage Academy football team is eight quarters away from winning a state title. 


In September, the prospects of the Patriots reaching .500 -- let alone competing in the playoffs -- seemed to be a challenge. 


A little more than one month later, Heritage Academy (5-5) is one of four teams still alive with a chance to win a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II title. Heritage Academy will take a three-game winning streak on the road at 7 p.m. Friday to take on East Rankin Academy (7-4) in Pelahatchie in the semifinals. The winner of that game will take on the winner of the Starkville Academy-Magnolia Heights game at 2 p.m. Nov. 9 in Clinton. 


Barrett Donahoe, who is in his first season at Heritage Academy, always thought the Patriots had the athletes to take this step. But losses to Caledonia High School and Madison-Ridgeland Academy forced him and his coaches to re-examine what they were doing. After a few tweaks, the Patriots began to see results. Despite losses to Jackson Academy and Magnolia Heights, Heritage Academy's confidence started to grow and things began to click. 


"Over the weeks in practice we got way more intense in practice and really understood we have a chance to win state," Puckett said. "Everybody realized that and has gotten it together and we have become a good ballteam." 


Puckett made that comment last week after Heritage Academy defeated Pillow Academy 35-7 to secure its first playoff berth since 2005. Puckett, a senior running back, has emerged to provide a confident presence in the backfield along with quarterback Cade Lott. Sprinkle in a dash of wide receiver Parker Dunaway, running back Hunter Anderson, and athlete Hudson Bean and the Patriots are ready to play eight more quarters. 


Donahoe saw signs of that confidence in a victory against Clarksdale Lee Academy. That game was the Patriots' first chance to unveil a few tweaks to their offensive formations and sets. Donahoe said he and his assistant coaches used a lengthy planning session to change the team's approach to better fit the strengths of the players. The result was an offense that comes straight at you with a variety of weapons. 


"We see guys during games asking for the football," Donahoe said. "They say, 'Coach, let me have it this time. Let me do something positive with it.' Defensive guys are coming up and saying, 'Coach, I can make that tackle.' Them being positive and doing things from a confidence standpoint has helped us tremendously." 


Puckett said Lott, who split time at quarterback last season, is an ideal example of someone playing with more confidence. Lott is seeing the field better and picking his spots in the read option. He also is benefiting from the emergence of Bean in the Wildcat formation. 


"He has come into his own and realized what he can do, and he can do a lot," Puckett said. "He is a playmaker, and he can evade blockers and get the ball out there and run. He is the best runner on our team." 


Donahoe has equal amounts of praise for Lott and Puckett. In fact, he said the entire team has persevered and adapted through ups and downs to reach a point some might not have thought possible. 


"He does a good job when he touches it," Donahoe said of Puckett. "I will tell you what he is doing now that he wasn't doing, he has vision. He made a run on our sidelines tonight when he got inside and he cut to the outside, made a guy miss, got back to the inside, and gained about 15 yards. Those are the things he lacked early in the season, but he has started to find his rhythm." 


Donahoe can say the same thing about his team. He acknowledges his squad faces a tremendous challenge Friday night, but he feels his players feel from a confidence standpoint they are as good as anybody. That mind-set shows just how far Heritage Academy has come in a little more than a month. 


"The biggest fear was not getting to succeed and not getting to the playoffs," Donahoe said. "That was the fear. We overcame that. It wasn't always easy and it wasn't always pleasant. There were a lot of Friday and Saturday night that I would not get a lot of sleep, but we never quit working. 


"(The sense I got from the players was they were thinking) man, we want to do this so bad, will somebody tell us how to and what we need to do and we will do it. The frustration from our part was how can we make these kids be what they want to be, and how do we re-adjust our mind-set to fit our group to help them become winners. We have done a tremendous job of that."


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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