November 11, 2012 1:17:00 AM
CLINTON -- Taylor Fields and the Heritage Academy football team have been chasing championships since the fourth grade.
Fields started that journey as a running back, taking toss sweeps for touchdowns like it was clockwork. He also played some linebacker, and in the eighth grade moved to defensive end, a position his father played, and a place where he found a home.
Playing with teammates and friends he has known since elementary school made that quest for a state title easier and harder. The team chemistry the Patriots built allowed someone like Miller Puckett to step away from football and come back a year or two later and become a "beast", according to Fields.
On Friday, Fields, Puckett, and the rest of the Patriots finished their chase and became beasts of Mississippi Association of Independent Schools football.
Buoyed by a 30-yard field goal by Graham McCain, a 3-yard touchdown run by Hudson Bean, and a dominating performance from the defense, Heritage Academy defeated Magnolia Heights 10-3 to win the MAIS Class AAA, Division 2 state title at Mississippi College's Robinson-Hale Stadium.
The state championship was the first for Heritage Academy (7-5) since 1986, when Ray Wooten's team beat Wilkinson Christian Academy 17-10 to cap the program's first undefeated regular season since 1972.
"Of all of our guys, Taylor is probably one of the most focused guys on winning the championship," Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe said. "We heard Taylor talk about it a lot. ... I think that was the driving force for him. The guys just wanted to win. His desire to win and to finish was what drove him."
Fields, who moved back to defensive end from outside linebacker, was part of a defense that held running back Fernando Van Hook in check even though he rushed for 153 yards on 32 carries. Van Hook had only five runs for 10 or more yards, and only one potentially game-changing play -- a 38-yard run in the fourth quarter when the game was still on the line.
But Fields and the Patriots' defense answered every challenge, especially on that drive. Parker Dunaway, Hunter Anderson, Matthew Morrison, Puckett, and Fields were part of a group that bent but held strong to force a fourth-and-goal from the Heritage Academy 12-yard line. True to its swarming nature, the defense converged on Van Hook, who took a direct snap out of the Wildcat and tried to scamper around the left corner into the end zone. The Patriots met him there and stopped him 1 yard short to preserve a 10-3 lead.
As big of a stand as that was, Fields had an even bigger highlight less than two minutes later. A 28-yard punt gave Magnolia Heights a first-and-10 from the Heritage Academy 32 with 1 minute, 48 seconds remaining. Quarterback Luke Young took the snap out of the shotgun and rolled to his right, only to be chased by Fields. Young tried to elude the hard-charging Fields, who appeared to break down to prepare for Young to skitter away before he wrapped him up for a 16-yard loss. Three incompletions later, Fields and his teammates celebrated a defensive performance for the ages.
"I hadn't been able to get him the whole game and I came off the edge and I saw him," Fields said. "He is really fast, and I didn't know how he was going to cut. When he rolled out, I know he didn't see me, and, luckily, I was able to catch him. I didn't realize how big of a play that was until it was over, and I realized this is it, we won it."
To a player, none of the Patriots, not even Donahoe, expected the final score to be 10-3. All of those polled believed the game would have been higher scoring, especially when you considered Magnolia Heights had Van Hook, one of the state's top running backs.
But Heritage Academy contained Van Hook and didn't allow him many opportunities to cut back. The Patriots countered Van Hook's shiftiness by moving defensive back Cade Lott to outside linebacker against some formations. The move limited space and running lanes and made the run-clogging work by Morrison and the defensive line even more effective.
"Taylor did a great job coming off the line and getting off blocks and making tackles for loss on Van Hook," Lott said. "Matthew did a great job filling up the hole, and we held them. We knew if we held them we would get a victory. They did a great job on defense."
Fields was especially proud Heritage Academy played Magnolia Heights twice this season and didn't allow Van Hook to score. Their effort Friday afternoon proved even more effective because the Patriots failed to convert several scoring chances that would have enabled them to put the game away. As agonizing as the scoreless second half was for Donahoe and Heritage Academy fans, Fields and his teammates on defense had all the faith they would be able to answer each call and make history.
"Our defense, it was up to the challenge this week," Fields said. "It is a good way to go out."
Fields then reflected on the journey, saying the victory hadn't fully hit him. He said it felt more special to be part of a defense that rose to the occasion in the second half of the season and had perhaps its best effort in the biggest game.
"When they were on the 12-yard line driving, it was third down and there was no other place I would want to be than with my teammates right there to win the state championship, and all we had to do was hold them," Fields said. "It is something special that I will never be a part of again, a group of guys like that that can get out there and get after it every play."
Maybe Fields was thinking about that drive in the locker room when Donahoe saw him sitting down and staring the medal the players received for winning the state title. Fields also could have been thinking back to the Madison-Ridgeland Academy game, when he pushed Puckett out of frustration after his teammate ran into him on a counter. He said the frustration at that time, especially after a loss to Caledonia the previous week, put the season on the brink of collapse.
Less than two months later, Fields was holding tangible evidence of a dream realized. Suffice to say the chase was worth the wait.
"I was thinking about how much sweeter it made the last time I would (play football) and at least I had that medal and it wasn't for nothing," Fields said. "I guess I was thinking about the entire season and that I would never play with these guys again and that it was kind of bittersweet that we went out champions, and as much as I hate practice every single day, I would really miss them and that I would never go out and do it again."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.