November 15, 2013 11:41:18 AM
The Heritage Academy football team has survived a murderer's row end of the regular season to play another day.
The Noxubee County High School football team hopes a murderer's row non-conference schedule has primed it to play all the way into December.
At this point in the season, with only four schools left in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II bracket, Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe knows his team will have to go through two more games of equal difficulty if it wants to repeat as Division II state champions. The first step will come at 7 tonight when Heritage Academy (8-4) takes on Lamar School (9-3), the No. 1 seed from the South.
In the Mississippi High School Activities Association, Noxubee County (8-3) will play host to Ripley (11-1) in the second round of the Class 4A North State playoffs.
Heritage Academy backed into the No. 2 spot in the North after a 47-13 loss to Magnolia Heights and a 53-0 loss to Madison-Ridgeland Academy in its final two regular-season games. The Patriots stayed alive thanks to Pillow Academy's losses to Washington School and to Starkville Academy. One win in either of those two games would have lifted Pillow Academy into a tie with Heritage Academy and given it the tiebreaker thanks to its 32-22 victory in the regular season.
That loss and the Patriots' past two are in the rear-view mirror, though, as far as Donahoe is concerned. The only thing the second-year head coach is concerned about it getting his team re-focused for the playoffs.
"We're here. They have a good team and good athletes," Donahoe said. "It is a playoff game. You have to play with intensity and emotion and you have to want to win. Has it been murderer's row? Yeah. It has been three in a row."
Donahoe said he felt a "new energy" in the kids at the start of practice earlier this week. He said the coaches and players talked about the need to play with maximum effort at all times. He said the team began to "clean up its act" mentally and physically in a lot of ways after the conversation.
The talk comes on the heels of two disappointing victories. Donahoe said he can live with a good Magnolia Heights team coming to Columbus and playing well and his team making a few mistakes and not being able to recover after falling behind. However, he said he can't handle a lack of effort, which is what he saw the following week against MRA. He feels that has been addressed in practice, and that he hopes to see a focused and energized squad tonight.
"We lost sight of that last week in a lot of regards," Donahoe said. "It was a combination of a hangover from the previous week and not believing you could beat a very good team and a lot of things. It wasn't a lot of fun."
Donahoe said he and the coaches also have to be focused on "continuing to push" the players to strive for their best effort and to make the players understand the intensity they will need tonight. The winner will play Magnolia Heights-Oak Forest Academy winner at 7 p.m. Nov. 23 at Mississippi College in Clinton. Last season, heritage Academy went on the road to beat East Rankin Academy 21-17 and then avenged a regular-season loss to Magnolia Heights with a 10-3 victory in the Class AAA, Division II title game. The Patriots' defense rose to the occasion and played an integral role in the team's five-game winning streak to end the season. This season, Heritage Academy will have to make a similar run without starting defensive lineman Josh Foxworthy, who is out for the season with an injury. Donahoe said the rest of the defense will have to play extremely well to contain a high-powered Lamar School offense.
But through all of the talk and re-assessing of the team, Donahoe still believes in his team if everyone comes together and plays with maximum effort.
"I can handle the Magnolia Heights game," Donahoe said. "I can't handle the response. The response was not what Heritage Academy football is supposed to be about, and it hasn't been since we have been here, and that was out 24th game to play under this coaching staff. After 23 games, we decided we didn't want to play football, and that was very discouraging to the coaching staff, so we have to re-assess what we are doing to fix the problem to make it better, and to make the guys better to help them win."
The defending Class 4A Tigers moved into The Associated Press rankings this week at No. 5 thanks in part to Corinth's loss in the first round of the playoffs. Tonight's opponent is No. 2 Ripley, whose only loss was to Rosa Fort (33-27) on Oct. 18. Coach Chad Cook, the former coach at Shannon High, has his team riding a three-game winning streak coming to Macon. Ripley has shutouts (33-0 against New Albany and 31-0 against Pontotoc) in its last two games.
Shorter feels Ripley's status has captured his team's attention and that the players are fired up for play at home for a second-consecutive week. The winner of tonight's game will play the winner of the Greenwood-Lafayette game. If Noxubee County wins, it would go on the road regardless of the opponent.
Noxubee County lost 23 seniors from last season's state title team. An inexperienced group kicked off the season with a loss to Starkville, a victory against Columbus, a loss to Louisville, a victory against Aberdeen, and a loss to West Point. Shorter said those games helped his team come back and win close games against Kosciusko (9-7) and Leake Central (12-7) to open Region 4 play. He feels the same way about the way the non-conference slate will help his team tonight.
"We came out a little flat (last week in a 45-6 victory against Gentry), but the kids picked it up at the start of the second quarter," Shorter said. "We had good long drives and we stalled, but it was like the kids were in slow motion when we first started. Defensively, we started off playing good, but we broke down on special teams.
"We really have come a long way and gotten a whole lot better. The beginning of the season has prepared us for this, and this team is ready for it. We are ready for Ripley. They have been one of those teams that has been ranked all year. ... They are more up this week for Ripley."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.