September 17, 2010 8:49:00 AM
It will be gutcheck time from here on out for the Heritage Academy football team.
Judging from last week, the Patriots just might be on the move toward the program''s first winning season since 2005.
To accomplish that goal, Heritage Academy (3-1) will look to capitalize on the momentum it earned last week in a victory against Lamar School at 7 tonight when it plays host to Madison-Ridgeland Academy (1-2).
"I felt like we showed some guts at the end of the game when we needed to have it," Heritage Academy coach Brad Butler said. "I wish it would have been there earlier. But the players were up for the challenge at the end, and I was pleased with the effort. When we had to have some crucial first downs we got them."
Heritage Academy used a key fourth-down conversion on a pass from Brandon Bell to Parker Dunaway to keep a drive alive in the fourth quarter. Bell made it pay off with a 1-yard plunge that gave the Patriots a 16-14 lead.
Cade Lott''s 23-yard run in the final moments helped account for a 22-14 victory. The win wasn''t safe until the Patriots snuffed out a last-ditch scoring effort by the Raiders.
Butler said the victory was a fitting reward after seeing a lot of guys play harder than he expected. He said the fact that the Patriots overcame injuries, the heat, and a lot of players on offense and defense made the victory even sweeter.
But Butler insisted this isn''t the time for Heritage Academy to rest on its laurels. Instead, he said the Patriots have to raise their intensity and execution another level if they want to reap even more rewards.
If Butler needs something to remind the players, he can point to 2009, when the Patriots started 3-0 and then closed the season with eight consecutive losses. Defeats to Lamar School and MRA started the slide, and Butler wants this year to be different. He feels the players want things to change, too.
"The seniors who are left over don''t want to go down that road again," Butler said. "We can''t allow one game to snowball and to create a loss week after week. We''re going to have to play as good as we played Friday night from here on out."
Butler said improved execution on blocking assignments will allow the Patriots offense to run the ball more effectively. In turn, a stronger running game will open options for Bell and receivers like Dunaway, Zach Taylor, Tyler Marchak, and Lott in the passing game.
"We have four or five guys out there who can make plays depending on what the defense is giving us," Butler said. "If we get the ball in any of their hands I feel good about it."
Heritage Academy will have to do all of that without senior running back John Laws Ferguson, who is out for the season with a left foot injury. Butler said senior Stance Henderson and sophomore Miller Puckett will look to pick up the slack.
Tonight''s meeting is the first between the teams since 2005, when Heritage Academy beat MRA 34-24 in the Class AAA playoffs to advance to the Division II title game. Starkville Academy beat Heritage Academy 31-7 in that game.
The Patriots have struggled to recapture that form. Butler is the program''s third head coach in that span, and his goal is to help get the team ready for a stretch run that features three road games in a row, and four of its final six games away from home.
"I think they''re realizing what it is going to take and that it is only going to get tougher from here on out," Butler said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.