October 17, 2018 12:41:55 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Heritage Academy football team watched rival Starkville Academy win a state championship last season.
The Patriots hope to do the same in 2018.
On Friday, the Volunteers left J.E. Logan Field empty handed as the Patriots earned a 21-7 victory and handed the Volunteers their first loss since week three of the 2017 season.
"It humbles everyone," said Starkville Academy coach Chase Nicholson, whose team slipped to 8-1 after the loss on Senior Night. "It's a short fall from the top. It's going to remind us that this game is not forgiving. It's very difficult. You have to earn everything and that's what a loss will show you. We will continue to fight, figure out what our plans is."
Heritage Academy used a dominant defensive effort to improve to 2-1 in Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 with one regular-season game remaining. Defensive linemen Fox Walters, Clay Walters, and Eli Acker dominated the battle in the trenches and received valuable assistance from the linebackers.
On offense, running back Kelvin "K.J." Smith combined speed and success through gaps set by the linemen. Smith's work on the ground enabled quarterback Carter Putt to show poise in the pocket and to utilize receivers Jared Long and Moak Griffin.
"I needed relentless effort from all 11 (on the field)," said Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison, whose team improved to 7-2. "That was the only way we were going to beat them. I really felt that we did that."
Heritage Academy defensive coordinator Russ Whiteside said the effort of the linemen was essential to the victory.
"We wanted to come out and be physical," Whiteside said. "Our front three were going to be big in that. We were physical upfront early in the game. We got the safeties running in the alleys. They played so hard."
By winning the battle up front, Heritage Academy's front seven limited the effectiveness of quarterback Garett Lewis and running backs Taylor Arnold and C.J. Jackson. Long had two of the Patriots' four interceptions, while Arnold (13 yards rushing) found few opportunities to run free. The longest offensive play was Jackson's 34-yard run that set up Starkville's lone touchdown by Arnold.
Arnold said he sees the loss as a chance to regroup. Although losing isn't ideal, he said the Volunteers have time to fix the things that didn't go right against the Patriots.
"Me, the lineman, and quarterback-receiver core, we have to work together a little more," Arnold said. "We have to get this offense going so we need to figure that out. I just need to come to work harder."
The Vols' defense battled with the Patriots in the first half, only allowing a 2-yard touchdown run by Griffin in the second quarter. Putt hit Rogers on a 30-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Griffin scored on a 48-yard run with a little more than a minute remaining to seal the deal.
The defense showed signs of life after blocking a 39-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter, but it couldn't help Starkville Academy capitalize on its strengths.
"We had everything we wanted, we just didn't make plays at times," Nicholson said. "We weren't able to execute properly."
Nicholson said the loss exposed the Volunteers' inefficiencies, but his team will have a chance to bounce back against Leake Academy next week.
"I still believe in this team," Nicholson said. "I believe they're going to respond the right way so we can get back up and go fight. This serves as a reminder."