Hawks stay the course despite early setbacks
by Chris Goltermann
In family relationships, two of the most important things are trust and loyalty. D.J. Clay is already proving his to this year's Heritage School football team.
When it came down to choosing between a potential tie and going for a victory, the Hawks head coach chose the latter in the closing seconds - even if the end result wasn't what the Hawks had hoped for in a 13-12 loss to Flint River.
'We went for two at the end just to let the guys know how much I believe in them,' Clay said of a two-point conversion attempt that was stopped with less than 30 seconds to play. 'I feel like at that point, if you kick a field goal, you're telling the team 'Let's try and get them the next time.' At the end of the game I had tears in my eyes, not because we lost the game, but because I was so proud of these guys.'
It's the type of trust that Clay and his staff have tried to infuse to a lineup that has already been challenged by another string of adversities over two weeks, first losing their fourth-year head coach Kevin Prisant just days prior to the opener and then seeing starting senior quarterback Brad Macke go down with a shoulder injury within minutes against Flint River.
They continue tonight when Heritage hosts a John Milledge program that seems poised to push ahead in a move to the GISA's highest classification following backto- back 12-1 and 11-2 seasons in Class AA.
Fourth-year head coach J.T. Wall and fellow former Georgia Bulldog teammate Tony Gilbert have the Trojans off and running - quite literally - following a 26-6 win over Trinity Christian of Dublin.
Wall, a former fullback, watched his offense churn out over 200 yards rushing, 188 of which from senior quarterback Colby McCommon along with two touchdowns.
While slow to start last week in a 7-3 halftime advantage, Gilbert's defense held Trinity to a pair of field goals and under 200 yards total offense.
'They're well coached. They're a get-after you team. Nothing special, but they're a very fundamentally sound, power team,' Clay said. 'They will spread the field a little bit, but that's just so they can get that quarterback in that open field.'
The game continues a tough three-week stretch of nonregion opponents that will be capped off with a road trip to play Terrell Academy, which opened its season last week by defeating the Trinity Lions 41-26.
Adversity, though, has become an old hat for the Hawks, even prior to this month. The 2013 lineup had 16 freshmen and sophomores contributing immediately, most in their first varsity action. That came on top of grieving the loss of student-athlete Tyler Henson.
'Our guys have been faced with these types of things. I could care less if we start the year 0-and-3. Those games don't count until we get to the region [schedule],' Clay said 'If we can play a tough Flint River team and a top-five John Milledge team and go on the road at Terrell [Academy], we're going to be well ready for our region if we continue to get better each week.'
Heritage, which already had plans to utilize its new-found depth at skill positions following last year's hardships, is now getting a chance to develop some at quarterback. While Macke was out of his shoulder sling and active during Thursday's practice while acting as a phantom punt returner, the injury will require sitting out tonight.
'He said he was ready to play, but we're not going to take that chance,' Hawks offensive coordinator Nathan Watts said. 'It's not worth the risk.'
Henson, meanwhile, showed his abilities while thrust into a starting role for the first time. The junior led the Hawks on two scoring drives, capped off with a 64-yard match over 12 plays to give the team a chance at the win. It included a clutch throw on third-and-long to Chaz Bankston that put the ball inside the 10-yard line.
'We're just trying to get him comfortable,' Clay said. 'He's a gamer. He's been a middle school quarterback since he's been in the seventh grade. He was able to step into that role and take it head on. We believe in whatever he's doing.'
Heritage's staff has put as much of its trust in Henson, who should be protected by a veteran front line led by cousin Trevor Henson and fellow senior Thomas Gruber. The Hawks have remained in shotgun sets while running the wing-T.
John Milledge enters tonight with seven key returners on defense led by senior linebacker Chase Register (6-1, 210).
One of the first things Clay did Saturday morning following the loss was call his new starting quarterback to confirm his faith in the junior.
'I told him, 'Listen up buddy, the pressure's not on you to win games. I'm putting the pressure on you to make sure our team continues to get better each week,'' Clay said. 'We got battle tested with our backup quarterback and a lot of guys cramping. So I know when we get our guys at full speed with five or six guys running the ball [and] three or four guys catching the ball, we're going to be a tough matchup in the future.'
Heritage's defense, meanwhile, came up big both early and late while shutting Flint River out in the first and last quarters of play. The hope is that the Hawks can continue that trend tonight against an opponent that needed a secondquarter surge to win its opener.
'As a staff, we pride ourselves in making adjustments,' Clay said. 'We're always trying to think two and three plays ahead. We shut [Flint River] out in the first quarter and the fourth quarter, and that's when you need your defense.'