October 8, 2013 10:51:57 AM
The echoes of the 2012 championship season are stirring at Heritage Academy.
That's just fine with football coach Barrett Donahoe, who welcomed the drama and the intensity Friday that surrounded his team's 14-7 victory against Washington School.
While a regular-season game pales in comparison to the magnitude of a state title matchup, Donahoe agreed the dynamics of the Patriots' come-from-behind victory at home had a lot of the same elements he saw in the team's 10-3 victory against Magnolia Heights that secured its Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II crown.
"We played great defense and made timely plays on offense," Donahoe said. "We never panicked. Guys continued to play even when we struggled at times offensively. That's what we talked about all week. After (the victory against) Oak Hill Academy, we weren't sure what to expect. The inconsistency had kind of gotten us out of sorts."
Donahoe hopes the Patriots (6-1, 2-1 Class AAA, District 1, Division II) will continue to raise their consistency and their energy the rest of the way. The next step will be at 7 p.m. Friday when Heritage Academy travels to Pillow Academy (2-5, 0-3). The victory against Division I Washington School gives Heritage Academy a firm grasp on its destiny. Victories this week and in remaining Division II games against Starkville Academy and Magnolia Heights (both at home) would send the Patriots back to the playoffs. There won't be any breaks, though. A game at Class AA Leake Academy follows Pillow Academy, so Donahoe knows his team can't afford to let up. That's why he wants the team to seize the momentum it earned from a hard-fought victory and move forward.
"We challenged our guys to give every bit of effort they had and to show the desire to win, and they did," Donahoe said. "There was an intensity level in the second half we haven't seen this year. It didn't come because we had a tremendous amount of success. It came through perseverance. I thought our guys' effort was extremely good."
Parker Short's 8-yard run in the third quarter tied the game before Short's 10-yard halfback pass to Mark Thatcher secured the victory. Thatcher reached behind him while in the air to make the play on Short's pass to push the Patriots one victory away from matching last season win total. A year ago, the Patriots finished on a five-game winning streak after Donahoe said the team faced must-win situations nearly every week down the stretch. The players responded much like they did Friday night in a competitive game in which neither team had much success running the football. Both teams averaged less than 3 yards per carry. Still, Heritage Academy relied on a defense that allowed only 209 yards to earn a confidence-building victory.
"We didn't have things go well for us early," Donahoe said. "We survived the first 10 minutes. Once we did that, we realized that we finally could be successful. The feeling at halftime after the defensive stop where they missed the field goal was that we felt like we could have success."
Now the challenge is to build on that success. A week earlier, Heritage Academy answered the bell when Oak Hill Academy cut its lead to 16-14. Against Washington School, Heritage Academy overcame penalties and turnovers to protect its home field. Donahoe hopes players like Luke Ellison, who had two pass deflections, and Jace Caldwell, who had the interception to seal the deal, continue to emerge and make plays at key moments regardless if things are clicking or the team is struggling. He believes the Patriots' ability to do that will determine whether it gets a chance to defend its title.
"We walked into the break room in the cafeteria (Tuesday) and it was the first time all year you could walk station to station and hear the conversation amongst the entire team was completely about football," Donahoe said. "Hopefully that was the switch game to turn on the understanding and the intensity they need."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.