November 9, 2012 9:22:11 AM
Matt Butts didn't expect it.
But credit the East Rankin Academy football team for speaking honestly minutes after Heritage Academy rallied for a 21-17 victory to eliminate his team from the playoffs.
"This is a football team that was averaging 278 yards a game," Butts said. "We knew it was going to be tough treading to run the football against them, but I didn't realize we weren't going to be able to run the football game. That was the difference in the football game. They beat us up front, and that is where the game was won for Heritage Academy."
Two months ago, the Heritage Academy football team had a much different look. The Patriots were in jeopardy of falling into a familiar funk after losses to Caledonia and Madison-Ridgeland Academy, but this time something clicked. Instead of settling for what they was going to be given to them, Heritage Academy decided to go out and take everything it could.
"At the beginning of the year after losing a couple of games, people were already down because we thought we were going to be the same old Heritage Academy team," Heritage Academy lineman Taylor Fields said. "The seniors started it. We have our common goal. We all wanted to make it to the state championship. Once we got the underclassmen to believe we actually could and our team came together, it has become a focal point like we can get there, we can do this, nothing is going to stop us."
Fields is one of 14 seniors who has helped move Heritage Academy four quarters away from a state championship. At 2 p.m. today, Heritage Academy (6-5) will try to complete that run when it takes on Magnolia Heights Academy at Mississippi College in Clinton in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division 2 title game.
Heritage Academy lost to Magnolia Heights 14-13 in Senatobia in the regular season. Coach Barrett Donahoe knows his team will have to contain running back Fernando Van Hook and a passing game that hooked up on a big play for an early score.
But Donahoe feels the steady play of his defensive line and the improved play of his offensive line will give the Patriots more than a fighting chance.
"(The defensive line) is one of the places where we are most talented on our team as far as strength, speed, and agility," Donahoe said. "We have five or six with a couple of sophomore who rotate in who really have some athletic ability. What they have done is get accustomed to coach (Tate) Marsh's system of gap responsibilities, slants, and understanding how to get off blocks and pass rushing lanes. They have really done a good job. Of all of the groups, they have continued to get better week in and week out. They have continued to be a great strength for us."
"Our offensive line has done a tremendous job of coming together and being a core unit of guys who had never played together. From left to right, we started five new offensive linemen than what had played last year. Over the last four or five weeks, we have fundamentally gotten back to more of our basic style of blocking."
While the offensive line came together to give quarterback Cade Lott time to throw touchdown passes to Parker Dunaway last week, the defensive line limited East Rankin to 65 yards on 34 carries, a far cry than the more than 200 it entered the game averaging.
Butts said the Patriots' backside pursuit was a key in keeping his team in check.
"Our quarterback likes to string that out a little bit and look for running lanes back side, and we didn't have any back side," Butts said. "They pursue the football probably as good as any football team I have seen all year."
On offense, Donahoe and passing game coordinator Jimmy Hicks rely on a group that includes Aaron Studdard (right guard), Bryant Bonner (left guard) Wesley Swedenburg (center), Marshall Tomlinson and Ferguson (tackles), and Fields and David Hardy (tight ends). The Patriots have tweaked their scheme to go right at teams as much as possible, and have featured a fair share of two-tight end sets.
"It was difficult because we were trying to find an identity as a team," Hicks said. "We were trying to find out if we were more of a team that was going to line it up and double-team the point of attack and run the ball, or were we more of a throwing team.
"We tried to find the best fit for us. About five or six weeks ago, after really evaluating things, we really found our identity with some of the things we were doing. I think it goes back to us having some more fun with some things and doing some things."
Lott said the offensive line has improved a lot from the beginning of the season. Not only is it giving him more time to throw, but it has come together and believes it can do the job.
Swedenburg feels that chemistry stems from the fact the seniors have been together since the sixth grade and have dreamed about playing for a state title ever since.
"I think we are special just because all of the seniors have been playing here for a long time," Swedenburg said. "It is a special senior group. We think we're good, and we go out and play and we do good."
The same mind-set holds true on defense. Fields said the defense suffered a wake-up call in a loss against Caledonia in which he said the Confederates "basically did whatever they wanted with us." He said Caledonia "moved us around" and forced the defensive players to realize they had to do something to get better as a group.
Marsh said Swedenburg, Fields, Hardy, Studdard, Brady Clark, and Cayden Upton have used determination to become a group he feels has been relentless as times.
"They don't want to stay blocked," Marsh said. "That is the thing we have preached up front. If you get blocked, get off. Don't stay. They are really six great kids we rotate through there. They just believe what we're doing is going to work."
Fields credits younger players like Mark Thatcher and Hunter Anderson for stepping up and following the lead of the seniors. He feels the defense has transformed into a unit that doesn't resemble the one he was a part of at the start of the season.
That's a good thing because Fields and his teammates want to end the season with something that many people probably never thought the Patriots could win: A state title.
"All you have to do is fight to get there," Fields said. "We are 6-5 right now, which is not the ideal record, but we never quit. We won the games we had to win to get in and we never gave in. Maybe people down the road will see you don't have to be 10-0. You just have to play hard, play every game in every season as hard as you can and good things will happen. You have to have the right mentality and you can't give up.
"(Winning a state title) would be the perfect way to go out, going out on top. It would be a lot easier to take those pads off after the game."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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