May 7, 2013 11:03:41 PM
As the first few weeks of the season turned into a month, Ed Lott remained optimistic.
After all, the Heritage Academy golf coach knew the pieces were there and that the Patriots had the potential to be one of the state's top teams.
But with all of the wet and cold weather in March and the first part of April, Lott hoped he would get a chance to see the team he believed in at the right time of the season.
Turns out all Lott had to do was wait until the very end.
On Monday, Heritage Academy rewarded the patience of their coach with one of its best showings of the season. The Patriots placed three players in the top five en route to a team score of 311 that helped them win the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA Overall State title at Hattiesburg Country Club.
"During the course of the year, I felt like we didn't put it together," Lott said. "I really felt like when the warmer conditions came our play would be better and we would be a better than we were earlier in the year. They finally put it all together."
Lott was even more impressed that the effort came on one of the state's most challenging courses, a venue that has played host to numerous state amateur events and Pro-Am events.
Buoyed by 75s from seniors Cade Lott and Evan McElrath and a 76 by junior Austin Fitch, heritage Academy won its second championship in three years. Lott and McElrath also were a part of the school's 2011 team that captured the overall state title.
Hunter Anderson (85), Cason Westmoreland (90), and Douglas Kilarski (91) also played for Heritage Academy.
"They just came together as a team and did exactly what I thought they could do all year," coach Lott said.
It's easy for a coach to have confidence when he has a top three that includes Lott, McElrath, and Fitch, a transfer from New Hope High School. The addition of Fitch gave the Patriots as solid a threesome as any team in the state. With scores consistently in the 70s, Lott, McElrath, and Fitch complemented each other and made each other better.
Fitch, who won a state title as a ninth-grader at New Hope High, said the fact he already knew his new teammates at Heritage Academy made things easier for him.
"Me and Cade have always played together at (Lion Hills, which used to Columbus Country Club)," Fitch said. "We played together growing up since we were able to walk nine by ourselves. Hunter Anderson used to live right across the street from me, and I knew Evan because he used to go to Caledonia (High). I kind of knew everyone's potential and that really helped me to know my game and knowing there were going to be some good scores around me."
It wasn't until Heritage Academy shot a 295 in a team victory at Clarksdale Lee Academy in mid-April that Fitch thought things were coming together. He said the lack of practice time at the beginning of the season due to weather stalled the team's progression. But he knew that time is all the Patriots needed to hit their stride.
"I think once we all got into a rhythm and tapped into what we were capable of doing as individuals and then as a team it gave us a lot of confidence," Fitch said.
That confidence carried the Patriots down the stretch and into the Overall State meet.
Fitch admitted he struggled with his putting at the start Monday. he said he was "over-thinking" some of his putts and just needed to relax. The turning point for him came after back-to-back bogeys on the front nine led to birdies on Nos. 10 and 11. He also had a two-putt from distance to save par on No. 17 to finish in fifth place.
"It feels really good knowing I did it with guys I have grown up with," Fitch said of the state title. "It's a great feeling making memories I will never forget."
McElrath also did his part in the march to the title. He made five birdies to offset eight bogeys and said he grinded it out late, especially after hearing the Patriots were in position to take the title. McElrath was the team's next-to-last finisher ahead of Lott. His 75 was good for fourth.
McElrath saved his 75 with clutch play to make bogey on No. 18, which he called one of the toughest holes on the course. He said he had a bad lie on the fairway and then he sailed his next shot over the green. He said his ball landed in pine straw and was barely sitting up a few feet in front of out of bounds. He recovered by playing what he called a "delicate" shot to the best of his ability.
That focus was the same focus the Patriots showed despite so many distractions early in the season. Even with the up-and-down weather and play, McElrath, like coach Lott, believed things would change for the better.
"With our talent I felt like if we did play to our potential that we're the best team out there and nobody can beat us," McElrath said. "To have our top three people shoot in the mid to low 70s and our fourth man shoot in the low 80s, whenever we play to that potential there are not that many schools that can beat us. Throughout the season we never played to our potential, but at the state meet we pulled it all together."
Lott helped seal the deal for the Patriots. Coming off a medalist performance at the Class AAA meet a week ago, Lott finished third behind medalist Davis Riley, of Presbyterian Christian, who shot a 68, and Sanders Ott, of Parklane Academy.
Lott sensed a good vibe from the team Sunday following its practice round. He had confidence the team had a great chance of winning if it stayed focused and didn't let the course win.
When Lott arrived at No. 16, he was told the team had a great chance of winning the title if he had a strong finish. He said that knowledge put pressure on him, but he said it was manageable because his teammates laid the mark for him.
"It is awesome to win another championship," Lott said. "It was a whole different course at Greenwood (Country Club last week at the Class AAA meet)," Lott said. "There were a lot of straight holes at Greenwood, but at Hattiesburg you really had to work the ball and play some different shots. I felt like I had a more consistent round at Greenwood, but I grinded it out at Hattiesburg. There were a lot more trees and you had to punch out and take your medicine. I had to grind out a lot more pars because there were less opportunities for birdies."
Lott had only two birdies on the day, but he closed with a bogey on No. 17 and a par on No. 18 to cap the championship. He said the title was even sweeter considering his struggles to stay in the fairway early on. He said he calmed down and did a better job hitting it where he wanted to on the back nine.
Although Lott admitted the victory was bittersweet because it was his last athletic event at Heritage Academy, Lott took pride in being able to win more hardware with close friends. He recalls playing golf with Fitch at Columbus Country Club when they were in the fourth and fifth grade. He said the fact that his prep career is over makes the latest title a little more special.
"The title was ours to lose in 2011 because we had such a great team," Lott said. "This year, we had nothing to lose coming into this tournament, and I am proud of myself and for the team for getting one more."
Heritage Academy is losing Lott, McElrath, and Taylor Fields to graduation, but coach Lott feels the team has a nucleus that can contend for another championship in 2014. Next year, he hopes he won't have to wait as long to see his true team.
"With the addition of a couple of younger players who practiced all year I am looking forward to trying to repeat next spring," Lott said. I really feel we have the opportunity to do something special to repeat as state champions."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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