Prep Football: Seniors help lead Heritage School to 7-0 start
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Candler Rich is a big reason why The Heritage School’s football team sits atop Region 2-AAA at 7-0 overall for the first time in school history with a No. 2 state-ranking in the GISA.
The 5-11, 185-pound senior is on pace to break the 1,000-yard rushing plateau for his third straight year when the unbeaten Hawks travel to Westminster of Augusta on Friday following a 237-yard effort in last Friday’s impressive 35-0 win over Stratford Academy on Homecoming.
The Hawks’ chemistry for success has included equal parts consistency and continuity, having showcased arguably more team depth than in any of Heritage’s previous six seasons of football.
Thirteen players have run the ball on offense so far. On defense, nineteen have recorded seven tackles or more.
Following what head coach Kevin Prisant called the team’s “most complete” effort of the year, the lineup — from the 5-11, 185-pound Rich to 5-7, 145-pound starting middle linebacker Trevor Sawyers — has impressed. Even if their first impressions in uniform to their opponent during warmups might not be as mighty as their final scores.
“We’ve had games where we’ve had more offense, we’ve had games where the defense played lights out. But that was as close to complete as you can get. And we still haven’t played a complete game. Nobody has,” Prisant said of last week’s shutout of mighty Stratford Academy (4-2, 1-1). But towards the end of the year you want to be clicking. And I hope we keep clicking.”
The gap for improvement continues to shrink for Heritage, which picked Homecoming night — capping a week of potential distractions — to record its first shutout effort of the season. Junior defensive lineman Tyler Henson continues to lead a surge up front after entering last Friday’s game with eight sacks, seven tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Overall, the unit entered the Stratford game with 15 takeaways with constant pressure both from the line as well as linebacker David Bready, one of five Hawks with at least two fumble recoveries.
“If you look at our 11 that we put out there on defense, you’re not going to think they’re as good as they are. Trevor Sawyers is five (foot) eight, a hundred and forty three pounds and he’s our starting middle linebacker,” Prisant said. “He may miss a tackle here or there out of pure physicalness. But Coach Clay does a great, great job of putting them in position. They know what’s about to happen.”
While Heritage has continued to put up big numbers on offense, averaging 45 points-per-game in Prisant’s option-based ground attack, it’s been the huge steps made on defense that has helped them dominate GISA opponents. A year ago, the Hawks allowed an average of just over three scores against GISA opponents and 78 in the team’s final two games of the season — both losses.
So far through six contested games, they’ve trimmed that number to just two touchdowns on average while currently giving up 14 per game.
As for the newly found success on defense, Prisant credits much of it to another year of understanding coordinator D.J. Clay’s system. For the first time in the careers of Heritage’s seniors, the Hawks have retained the same coaching staff.
“We’re not doing anything different than what we’ve done before [we got here],” said the Hawks head coach. “For the first time, they haven’t had to learn a new system. They are, I guess, reaping the benefits of being in a system for more than a season.”
While maybe not possessing the overall size as opponents as part of Class AAA’s smallest football-playing school in terms of enrollment, Heritage has put itself in a better position to keep opponents from dominating time of possession. In turn, it’s allowed Rich and quarterback Joe Bonner the ability to stay on the field longer on offense.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of getting to the football throughout the year,” Prisant said. “That is something we do work on. Coach Clay takes pride in that.”
Bonner had 93 yards rushing in his second start behind center since returning from a shoulder injury. More importantly, his decision-making ability with the option was near perfect.
“You could tell in the Mount de Sales game [two weeks ago], he was a little slower, a little more hesitant,” Prisant said of Bonner. “On Friday night, I thought he did a pretty good job handling that option. He was smart on when to give, when to keep, when to get rid of it. He was pretty tough.”
Stopping Westminster, which is coming off a 40-14 loss at Mount de Sales while falling to 0-2 in Region 2-AAA, will involve keeping pressure on quarterback Tim Nabholz. The Wildcat attack preys on quick, short throws to keep the ball moving while avoiding pass rushers like Henson, Bready and Tyler Nix, who leads the Hawks with 57 tackles.
“It’s something different than I’ve ever seen. It’s designed to try and get the ball out of his hands immediately before guys like Tyler can get to him,” Prisant said of Westminster. “They’ve got nothing to lose. If they lose this game, they’re out [of the playoffs]. They’re going to come at us with everything they’ve got. And that scares me a little bit. We’ve got to be ready for anything.”
The Heritage staff has equally tried to use each practice as a reminder of the potential — both positive and negative — that an undefeated run through the schedule can produce. A victory this week would already match last season’s win total in what was the most successful season in school history.
But Prisant also can recall a share of undefeated or top-ranked teams — including the 2007-08 New England Patriots, the 2010 Atlanta Falcons and the 2011 Green Bay Packers — that failed to win a championship despite leading the regular season in victories.
“There’s a little buzz around here at school, especially with the students and the parents,” Prisant said. We’ve got to keep our kids understanding we’ve got everything in the world to lose right now. So we’re trying to keep them where they need to be.”