November 17, 2013 1:29:00 AM
MERIDIAN -- Barrett Donahoe uses the words "maximum effort" to describe what he expects from the Heritage Academy football team every day.
In his first season as head coach of the program, Donahoe faced plenty of challenges in a 2-5 start that was on the verge of going nowhere.
But urgency can be an effective tool to right the ship. Faced with the prospect of not making the playoffs, the Patriots responded by winning their next five games to help them win a state title.
The challenges didn't get any easier this season.
Although Heritage Academy reached eight victories entering the home stretch of the regular season, back-to-back losses to Magnolia Heights and Madison-Ridgeland Academy left Donahoe and the Patriots questioning the identity they were attempting to establish. Victories by Washington School and Starkville Academy against Pillow Academy gave Heritage Academy a chance to back into the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II playoffs and defend its crowd.
Instead of feeling sorry for itself and wallowing in the sting of its last two defeats, Heritage Academy showed Friday it is very capable of playing with the maximum effort Donahoe demands, and that it is capable of being an aggressive, physical football team for four quarters. The disappointment on this night, though, was that the Patriots didn't get another chance this season to show it.
Danny Weisner's 21-yard field goal with less than seven minutes remaining helped push Lamar School to a 24-21 victory against Heritage Academy at Grey Cobb Field.
The victory sends Lamar School (10-3), the top seed from the South, off to Clinton where it will face Magnolia Heights at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mississippi College for the Class AAA, Division II title.
The loss ends Heritage Academy's season at 8-5.
"I love the fight and effort they gave us," Donahoe said. "They played hard and played to the end and gave us a chance to win. We made some big plays and now it is fun, but Lamar's defense is so good and stingy. We had a hard time establishing the run, but we just played hard.
"I love my kids for what they did tonight. That is what we talked about last week. We just hated the way we played because we hadn't done that before. This is the way we're supposed to play football. This is the way we're supposed to have ended this."
Despite having a bitter taste in his mouth from the loss, Donahoe said he was "very pleased" with the way the players responded to the challenge. He said the Patriots used the past week to re-focus, to clean things up in the program, and to re-set expectations. He knew entering the game the Patriots would be ready.
"It was very important to show we weren't smoke and mirrors," Donahoe said. "That is what was going around the MAIS, that we were smoke and mirrors. Everybody thought we were going to come down here and get the you know what beat out of us. We didn't feel that way. We had a very intense week of practice. We cleaned it up. We cleaned up our act, cleaned up what we are doing, and we started working on what can we do to be a better team. The outcome was just a little bit short."
Heritage Academy rallied from a 14-0 deficit thanks in part to a little trickeration at the end of the first half. A handoff from Austin Fitch went to Hunter Anderson and then to Mark Thatcher, who pulled up and threw a perfect spiral across the field to Walker Brown. Graham McCain's extra point with six seconds to go cut the margin to 14-7.
"The biggest motivation in the game was that pass from Mark to Walker," Anderson said. "Mark threw it beautiful and Walker had a great catch on it."
The Patriots built on their momentum in the second half. A pooch kick by McCain was recovered by Jace Caldwell and set the Patriots up at the Raiders' 41-yard line. A 16-yard pass from Fitch to Caldwell pushed them to the 25. The drive extended to the Raiders' 11 before a chop block penalty and a sack stalled the movement but not the momentum.
Heritage Academy continued to surge when Cayden Upton recovered a fumble that gave Heritage Academy the ball at the Lamar School 26. Three plays netted -8 yards, but instead of punting, the Patriots went with a fake field goal. Fitch's pass down the middle found a wide open Bell, who shook a tackle at the 10 and scored. McCain's extra point made it a new ballgame.
"We had it all season, but the times we would shift into the set to throw it they would always leave a guy in the middle of the field to cover the receiver," Fitch said. "They shifted everybody out, so Logan Bell just had a wide open seam to hit it and I made the throw and he made the run. It was wide open. Thank goodness.The game nearly took another turn on the ensuing kickoff when Heritage Academy recovered a fumbled fair catch. But Joseph Marcello intercepted Fitch, who rolled right trying to escape pressure.
Lamar School responded by driving from its 23 with the aid of three Heritage Academy offsides penalties to take the lead. Jackson Turner capped a drive that needed only one pass with a 6-yard run that helped make it 21-14.
Heritage Academy answered like a champion, as Michael Ledbetter recovered a fumble near midfield to put the Patriots back in business. Anderson made sure they didn't waste any time, taking an option handoff from Fitch and barreling 54 yards to help tie the game at 21.
"The linebacker, I think, went out on (Fitch), so he gave it to me and I was able to get it to the end zone," Anderson said. "I had a guy in front of me and I stepped right of him, pretty much."
But just as Heritage Academy responded to each Lamar School score, the Raiders showed their championship mettle. Paced by the running of freshman quarterback Davis Harrison (23 carries, 111 yards) the Raiders went 13 plays and ate up nearly five minutes. Harrison converted a fourth-and-2 from the 48 with a 17-yard run. He also had a 23-yard run around the right side that helped set up Weisner's kick that proved to be the game-winner.
"As we went into the ballgame, we thought if we could run the football that is what we would like to do," Lamar School coach Mac Barnes said. "That is the way Magnolia Heights is. People talk 'spread offense,' but we are not a bubble screen team. We either throw the ball down the field or run the football. Our quarterback has to be a runner and a thrower."
Heritage Academy still had time to tie or to take the lead. A personal foul facemask penalty on third down extended the drive and gave the Patriots a first down at their 49, but that's where the drive stalled. A pass from Harrison to Lee Martin on third-and-12 went for 13 yards and allowed the Raiders to eat up more valuable time. Turner's 16-yard run up the middle on third-and-10 was the final dagger and denied the Patriots a final chance to get the ball.
Barnes praised his players for responding from a "quiet" halftime in which the team tried to forget the big play before halftime. He also credited Donahoe and the Patriots for not giving in in a game he said that showed what high school football is all about.
"I told coach Donahoe after the game that I thought their coaches did a magnificent job taking a team that had given up 100 points the last two weeks and got them to play so hard and good," Barnes said. "They gave their team every chance to win, and their kids showed tonight why they won a state championship last year. There is something about getting to that last game and it is do or die, and they have 15 seniors. They didn't want it to be their last game and they played our tails off."
Donahoe knows losing that many seniors will be difficult, but he also knows the effort his players showed Friday is something he and his coaches have to find a way to replicate. He said they will do that by making the expectations of Heritage Academy football clear.
"We can't walk off this football field without expectations of being in the playoffs every year," Donahoe said. "This has to be a catalyst to push us forward to get to Jackson next year. I want my football team to expect to be in the playoffs, to play like a playoff team every week. I think they are capable of doing that.
"As far as what taste this leaves in my mouth, it leaves a taste we have to go to work. The guys are with us. They got to see what success can be. Now we have to go work as hard as we can. Our seniors, we thank them for everything they did for us. Going into the offseason, I hope we use this as motivation and momentum to keep going."
Anderson and Fitch are two of the seniors who played their final prep games. Anderson, a member of the 2012 state championship team, knew the Patriots would respond after two disheartening losses.
"It is a heartbreaker, but if there was a way we could go out on a loss, that would be it because our team fought about as hard as it could," Anderson said. "The seniors stepped up as leaders and as a team we played well."
Fitch, who joined the team this season to play the sport for the first time since his freshman season, hopes he and his classmates helped establish a mind-set that believes in "maximum effort" and that it carries over to future classes so more Patriots get to experience the feeling of winning a state title.
"We had a huge crowd tonight, and I think a lot of people got to see we were really determined," Fitch said. "Maybe I didn't have the longest football career, but I think I left one that people can say he and the team he was on really worked hard, and I think it left a good legacy for the people who are coming up because all of the ball boys we have are in middle school, so they got to see the determination we have in games like these. I think it is a good thing."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.