February 27, 2018 10:44:34 AM
The ingredients were there from the start.
Add in some toughness and confidence over the course of a long season and the Heritage Academy boys basketball team earned the right to be one of the last 15 teams standing for the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Overall State tournament this week.
Heritage Academy coach Russ Whiteside believed at the start of the season the Patriots had the right pieces. The key was finding a way to draw the physical and mental toughness out of his players. Whiteside said that process started in the offseason, when the boys basketball team and the football team worked together at the Fitness Factor in Columbus to prepare for the marathon.
"It certainly was not something that was built starting in October when basketball season started," said Whiteside, who credited assistant coach Carter Holmes for working with the basketball players prior to the season while he completed his work as defensive coordinator with the school's football team. "It is something they have worked on really since the end of last season."
That work paid off Saturday night when Heritage Academy defeated Hillcrest Christian School 59-39 to win the MAIS Class AAA State title at Columbia Academy.
For its accomplishment, the Heritage Academy boys basketball is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
Entering the home stretch, Heritage Academy can see the finish line. The final kick will start at 7 tonight when Heritage Academy (28-10) will take on Simpson Academy, the No. 3 seed from Class AAAA, Division 2, in the opening round of the MAIS Overall State tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton.
The winner of that game will take on the winner of the game between Marshall Academy and Union Christian at4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The tournament features the top three seeds from all four MAIS classifications. The semifinals will be at 6 and 7:15 p.m. Friday. The title game will be 3 p.m. Saturday.
Whiteside credits a "good group" of players that understands the meaning of team and what it takes to play together. He said the team chemistry has enabled the Patriots to adopt a "next-man-up mentality" that allows one player to emerge if another or multiple players are having off nights.
"They are such a good team," Whiteside said. "That is not talking about necessarily something they do on the basketball court. They have bought in to being a championship team and kind of changing us into, hopefully, a championship program. They have set the tone. Hopefully some people will follow their lead."
Heritage Academy advanced to this point by rallying to beat Leake Academy and Canton Academy to win the Class AAA, District 2 title. Heritage Academy defeated Bayou Academy, Lee Academy, and Starkville Academy to win the Class AAA North State title at North Delta Academy in Batesville. Wins against Columbia Academy, Riverfield Academy, and Hillcrest Christian School secured the Class AAA title.
Jared Long played one of his best games of the season in a 14-point performance against Riverfield Academy. Eli Acker added 12 points. In the title game, Dontae Gray led the way with 19 points. Acker and Long had 12, while Josh Neal had 10. All four were named to the all-tournament team.
"I was really proud in the second half of all three games," Whiteside said. "In all three games, I thought we showed some mental toughness."
The Patriots can go even deeper than. Factor in sophomores Carter Putt and Reid Huskison and Heritage Academy has received contributions from everyone.
Long said Whiteside has helped the Patriots believe they could accomplish something special if they continued to work hard. He said the team's confidence has been growing since the 15-point comeback victory against Leake Academy in the district tournament.
"He has motivated us the entire season," Gray said. "We don't want to lose. When we go play Overall, we just want to win because we know we can win if we play as hard as we can."
Acker agreed and said the Patriots started to realize they could hang with the good teams they played with each result. He said the confidence was always there, but it increased after the district championship and has added fuel to the fire to close the journey with another title.
"During the season, we played a lot of close games we didn't win," Acker said. "It kind of worried us, and then the playoffs came around and we started winning close games, which gave us an extra boost. It gave us more confidence going into the state championship."
Acker and Gray, who also play on the school's football team with many of the basketball team, said the chemistry carried over from a nine-win season in the fall and helped set the stage for an even bigger season on the court.
"I think it is going to be really fun, especially seeing how we hang with the guys in AAAA," Acker said. "I am looking forward to it."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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