Published Thursday, November 01, 2012
By CHRIS GOLTERMAN
The Heritage School’s football program may not offer stock — and this would be a buyer’s market if it did, despite the current state of the economy — but the number of its investors have grown considerably over the past two seasons.
It’s as much a reason why the Hawks stand unbeaten in 2012 at 8-0 overall and 3-0 in Region 2-AAA while ranked second in the GISA.
Nearly all of those “investors” wear blue, white with a hint of red on Friday nights during the fall just as they will this week at home against 2-7 Tattnall Square, the most decorated GISA football program of them all with 11 state titles under head coach Barney Hester.
“They see that there are benefits to that hard work,” said Heritage School second year head coach Kevin Prisant after the Hawks matched last year’s win total with a 49-14 rout at Westminster of Augusta. “It’s a lot more fun buying a car with your money than buying a car with mama’s money. You’ve earned it and you feel like you’re doing something. You’ve invested in something. There’s equity in it.”
The Trojans have struggled after suffering heavy losses to graduation following an 11-2 season. Five of the losses — including last week’s 16-14 defeat to Stratford — have been by single digits. Only Trinity Christian, which needed a 26-point second half surge, has been able to find some breathing room against Tattnall, which at 1-2 in 2-AAA, can get itself right back in the thick of the region playoff hunt with a win Friday at Heritage School.
Led by quarterback Lane Watson, who entered last Friday with 642 yards passing and 442 yards rushing while responsible for 16 touchdowns, the Trojans have the potential to hand Heritage School its first loss since making the jump to Class AAA this year.
“They’re still Tattnall, regardless of their record. They still wear those yellow helmets and blue jerseys,” Prisant said. “As long as Barney Hester is still there, they’re going to be well coached. That tradition is there. So many games [this year] they’ve been a play away. We could still be traveling in the first round of the playoffs. I think [our] kids know that.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Last week’s victory featured a 34-point first quarter but sluggish play throughout the game.
“We got on to them hard last week,” Prisant said. “There were times we just looked like we were going through the motions. I was not happy and they knew it.”
Heritage School can’t afford a letdown now. A win Friday would clinch the first region football title in its varsity history and guarantee a first-round playoff game at home — another reward the program hasn’t experienced in seven years.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Hawks senior Candler Rich of the team’s success a week after eclipsing 5,000-yards rushing for his career. “That’s great and all, but we want to win a region championship. We want to have a home playoff game and we want to win a playoff game. Those are all things we’ve never done before.”
Hester has won 320 games over an illustrious 38-year career while going through only his second sub .500 season since coming aboard in 1982. Just 28, Prisant enters only the 20th game of his head coaching tenure.
But Hawks players see how valuable their head coach has been has been the most successful start in the school’s still young football history.
“One of the biggest reasons for our success is our coaches,” said Rich, arguably the GISA’s Most Valuable Player with over 1,000-yards rushing, nine interceptions and 19 total touchdowns — all team highs. “This is the first time any of us seniors have had the same coaches for two years in a row. We believe in them and the system. We’ve come a long way. I still remember my brother’s freshman year [in 2006] when we went 1-9.”
Since arriving last fall for his head coaching debut, Prisant, a former GISA player and assistant, has led Heritage to a 16-3 record with a staff primarily consisting of defensive coordinator D.J. Clay and a few hard-working volunteers outside the school. But the Hawks coach also admits he entered his first head job at just the right time. He inherited a nucleus of 13 juniors last fall, most of whom had been playing together since elementary school.
In its seven-year history, football hasn’t always been the “trendy” sport at Heritage. Getting athletes to commit had always been a concern of a Hawks head coach. Some chose to stick with baseball, basketball and/or soccer, the three major sports the school offered for boys prior to an inaugural 1-9 varsity season in 2006.
The biggest challenge for Prisant and Clay to their players might have been getting them to believe that they were willing to do whatever necessary to create a winning attitude.
“I think they just had to see that Coach Clay and I weren’t going anywhere and that we were invested in their best interest as a football program,” Prisant said. “They all feel like they have a vested interest in this team. That’s the biggest difference.”
Continuity and leadership have been the others. For the first time Hawks varsity players haven’t had to learn a new offensive or defensive system. Add that to the trust the seniors have built in each other starting at the lower and middle school level and continuing through last year’s 8-3 playoff campaign and the influence of the Heritage upperclassmen has been invaluable.
“The leadership has been through the roof,” Clay said. “They’re just a hard-working group of guys.”
Granted the undefeated Hawks possess arguably the best player the Georgia Independent Schools Association can offer in Rich, who amidst a quarter-plus action in last week’s 49-14 win over Westminster, ran for 75 yards and a touchdown while also adding his seventh and eighth interceptions of the year. But players two-through-16 in the lineup are equally talented.
Five Hawks have rushed for more than 100-yards this year and three have broken the 100-yard mark in receiving. In all, 18 players have recorded at least 10 tackles on defense.
“The guys are enjoying being in an opportunity to make plays. Whereas it’s not just the Candler Rich Show,” Prisant said. “They know when they’re getting the call to make plays that obviously there’s trust there.”
Anyone close to Heritage’s program understands how important Rich has been to the Hawks’ success the last two years. His current statistics include 1,100-yards rushing and 13 touchdown while averaging well over 10-yards a carry. The senior has also scored among six receptions for over 100 yards, run back three kickoffs for touchdowns and has also returned a pair of interceptions for scores.
“I honestly think some of the stuff people say about me is overrated,” Rich said. “We have a great line, our quarterback, our receivers. it’s everyone. Not that I don’t like teams targeting me. It makes me play harder when I see that.”
What could have been a turning point at the start of the season in a shoulder injury to senior quarterback Joe Bonner only seemed to create further depth. Bonner was among five players injured at preseason camp and the most critical considering backup Brad Macke was also coming off a season-ending injury as a freshman while not seeing many snaps behind center in 2011.
“Joe’s been our guy. He’s been the only quarterback I’ve played with since the fifth grade,” Rich said. “But we had confidence that Brad could do the job. We all got together and got behind him.”
Macke went 22 of 35 for 356 yards and six touchdowns in Bonner’s absence, including a victory over a Class AAA program in Southland that the team had struggled a bit against while splitting two preseason games at camp.
“That was definitely a big game for us, with it being our first [Class] AAA game,” Rich said. “That gave us some confidence.”
Since returning, Bonner has eased back into the starting job with over 200-yards passing and 200-yards rushing in just three starts. Senior Tyler Nix leads the Hawks with 71 tackles while also moving from guard to fullback early in the year when teammate Dalton Trammell was injured.
“We’ve moved some guys around, some maybe to positions they hadn’t been playing before,” Prisant said. “But their willing to put in the work. They know that when we call their name we trust them out there to do the job.”