November 10, 2017 11:10:29 AM
The Heritage Academy football team overcame the doubters in 2017.
Faced with limited depth and an inexperienced roster, the Patriots didn't let either issue stand in their way en route to a 9-3 season and a second-place finish in Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, District 2.
That run ended last Friday with a 42-20 loss to third-seeded Adams County Christian Academy in Natchez.
"I told this group from day one a lot of people doubted them," Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said. "A lot of people didn't think they would get as far as they got. That is a testament to them. They bought in. We were really hard on a lot of sophomores and juniors who didn't play very much last year. They just responded and took coaching and came to work every week and got better."
Sixth-seeded Heritage Academy (9-3) lost junior Moak Griffin to an injury early in the game. The Patriots already were playing without junior Lex Rogers, who suffered an injury a week earlier against Central Private School (La.), so many of their players -- Long, J.R. Lott, Dalton Alexander, Dontae Gray -- in the secondary had to go both ways. Harrison said that proved to be an issue against an opponent with significant team speed.
"I think our guys saw what a championship team looks like," Harrison said. "They played for it last year and have a shot to play for it this year, playing against Starkville (tonight), which also has a shot to play for it. We had a chance to win a championship last year, so I think they understand the work ethic that is going to need to go into it for us to take the next step."
Still, the second-year head coach liked how his team fought until the end of the game. He believes going two games deep into the playoffs will provide needed experience and confidence for his returning players.
"Defensively, we competed and hit the spots we were supposed to and caused a couple of turnovers," Harrison said. "They just broke a couple on us."
Harrison praised the play of sophomore wide receiver Jared Long. He said sophomore quarterback Carter Putt connected with Long for two touchdowns against an athletic defense with good size that had six interceptions.
Austin Dotson had the Patriots' third touchdown in a second half that featured a running clock.
The Patriots figures to return their entire offensive and defensive lines in 2018. Harrison said the team will need to find a replacement for Gray, who was the team's go-to back for the last three seasons. He believes Putt will be even better next season after a solid sophomore season in which he emerged as a team leader.
"I think it is a big building block," Harrison said. "I think a lot of people viewed this as a rebuilding year for us, and it wasn't. I am proud of that. I am proud of them for that. The momentum can carry on. Last year, the momentum carried on to this year, and I hope it can keep carrying over."
Harrison said an advantage next season will be the Patriots figure to be able to start faster. He said this season the coaching staff had to do a lot of teaching the players how to practice and how hard they needed to play to achieve results. A successful season against a strong schedule helped drive that point home, and Harrison hopes the players remember the lessons learned this season and use them to be a step or two ahead of the game when practice reconvenes.
Until then, the search for additional players will continue to fortify the team's depth that will be tested with the graduation losses.
"Everybody knows we are losing Dontae, sot he running back position is going to be wide open, so somebody is going to have to step up and take that spot," Harrison said. "You lose Dalton Alexander at receiver, but we have a lot of young guys coming back there. Up front, we have everybody coming back. We're losing John Henry (Fields), Josh (Neal), and Judd (Murphy), so we're going to replace three out of four backers.
"Dotson and Parker Ray played a lot, so we have some experience there, but there are going to be at least two positions were people didn't play a lot. Dontae and Dalton played safety a lot, so we will have to replace there, but Jared, Moak, and Lex are back.
"Linebacker, one safety, and running back, we're going to be OK, so I am optimistic heading into the offseason."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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