November 6, 2012 10:28:00 PM
In August, Barrett Donahoe talked about changing a mind-set.
Four weeks later, Donahoe and his assistant coaches re-evaluated their plan in an attempt to keep the program moving in the right direction.
Coming off back-to-back losses with three games remaining, the Patriots faced a crossroad that put their new attitude to the test. In past seasons, that mentality might have wavered. But a victory against Oak Hill Academy started a run that grew with another win against Washington School and led to a victory against Pillow Academy that clinched a playoff berth.
Now, with four quarters to go, Donahoe can look back at the work he and assistant coaches Tate Marsh, Bruce Branch, Jimmy Hicks, Toby Lott, Ed Lott, and Tommy Studdard have done and know that the program is poised to make history. At 2 p.m. Friday, Heritage Academy (6-5) will take on Magnolia Heights Academy at Mississippi College in Clinton in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II title game.
Whether it's the "aggressive" approach of Donahoe, the analytical style of Hicks, the passing game coordinator, the reassuring methods of Branch, the school's baseball coach, or the reverse psychology of Marsh, the defensive coordinator, the methods have come together to produce a mix that has pushed the program to new heights.
"I think the dynamics of our coaching staff are tremendous," Donahoe said. "There are very opposite personalities on the coaching staff."
Marsh got back into coaching after working at New Hope High School, Heritage Academy, and in the Mobile, Ala., school system. Donahoe said he may have an "old-school" approach to the staff, but he said his reliance on fundamentals, including blocking on tackling, has proven to be crucial to the team's maturation. He also praised Branch's willingness to take on more responsibility and his effectiveness working with the secondary.
On offense, Donahoe credits Hicks, who came from the Tunica Institute of Learning, for his ability to read and react situations quickly. Hicks suggested to Donahoe that Heritage Academy run a play where Hudson Bean takes a direct snap, flips the football to Miller Puckett, who then gives the ball to Cade Lott coming from the left side on a reverse. Lott led Parker Dunaway, who made a diving catch that helped heritage Academy take a 14-0 halftime lead against East Rankin Academy.
"Coach Marsh does a great job of staying very level-headed," Donahoe said. "Coach Hicks and coach Branch have been phenomenal. Coach Hicks brings an offensive mind that is very unique for an assistant coach at this level.
"Coach Branch said he wanted to be more involved. We have given him more responsibilities in the day-to-day operations of position coaching with the defensive backs and the secondary and working with coach Marsh and learning his system. He has been a stability for our team, a stability of understanding the kids, knowing them when we didn't, understanding their personalities, and talking to the coaching staff on how we can handle situations.
"It has been a great dynamic on the coaching staff. My biggest chore in the offseason is going to be figuring out how to keep them all here because everyone on this staff is capable of being a head football coach."
Coming in as the new football coach at Heritage Academy, Donahoe looked to senior Aaron Studdard to move from fullback to the offensive line to help solidify his pistol set. Studdard's willingness to switch position enabled Donahoe and his coaching staff to ease into their jobs much faster.
Donahoe and the coaches faced another challenge in maintaining their new mentality. Consecutive losses to Caledonia and Madison-Ridgeland Academy forced the coaches to re-evaluate and to tweak their approach. The changes weren't drastic, but the coaches felt the moves played more to the strengths of the Patriots individually and as a unit.
Marsh said the coaches tried to keep things fun, emphasized teamwork, playing together, and never giving up. He said success was the biggest thing that helped unite the players. He said it started to build and snowball until it took hold and played a part in the team's ability to rally from a 17-14 deficit in the final minutes against East Rankin Academy.
Marsh said that confidence lingered despite losses to Jackson Academy and Magnolia Heights. It was another question whether the Patriots would be able to accomplish that goal was unknown, but he said the players stayed in there, believed, and rallied to help it secure a trip to the title game.
"Coach Donahoe has preached that you're never out of it and to fight, fight, fight," Marsh said. "You can always see in our ballgames that we have that little lapse when we let the other team back in it, or we don't perform like we should. Then some gear kicks in and we come back. Those time periods are getting shorter and shorter where we're not executing like we should be, so I think everything is gearing toward where we need to be."
Hicks agrees and said the team's success has been built on confidence, fun, and plenty of belief. He said this team is different from any one he has been a part of. As a result, he said it has been even more important for the coaches to find what works for each player and to mold those elements together into a cohesive blend.
Judging from the results, Heritage Academy has found that balance.
"We all work really well together," Hicks said. "It has been a lot of fun. I think we have gotten the guys to buy in and to have fun and trusting them and believing in them. To me, if you can't believe in the coaches, you're not going to get 100 percent out of them.
"For the most part, we have gotten the kids to believe in what we're doing. When you can get that, you may not always be successful, but when you can get the kids to buy in and run through a brick wall for you, that is the No. 1 obstacle you have to overcome as a coach."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.