Published Thursday, November 15, 2012
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
On the heels of the program’s first region football championship by way of defeating its closest GISA rival, one might think The Heritage School could have a tough time finding the same level of motivation for Friday’s state quarterfinal game against Pinewood Christian.
But in a year for firsts — another potential milestone stands in front of the Hawks.
Namely, a playoff victory.
“We’ve talked about all year how they need to treat every game like you’re fighting for your life,” Heritage School head coach Kevin Prisant said. “Well, now everybody’s fighting for their lives.”
The Hawks (9-1) only need last year of a reminder of their playoff success. Despite making the postseason in three of the last four seasons, the school has yet to make it through to the second round. In Prisant’s first season at the school, the Hawks won eight of their first nine games only to drop their final two including a final loss at Edmund Burke.
Losing again — in Heritage School's first postseason game at home — would be disastrous for a senior-laden team that also finds itself as a favorite among seeding in its four playoff appearances. Pinewood dropped its final three region games to close the regular season at 5-5 overall and 2-3 in Region 1-AAA while hanging on to the No. 4 seed in the state playoffs.
The Hawks, meanwhile, did anything but back in to the postseason, scoring 29 unanswered points against county rival Trinity Christian to rally from a 14-0 deficit on the road with a region championship on the line.
“I was happy that we were able to jump on them when we did,” Prisant said, pointing to a faked extra-point for a 2-point conversion as a play that could have provided a boost of confidence going into halftime. “When we cut it to 8-14, I think it showed we were right there. We didn’t panic.”
Prisant admits his team might have been too tense heading into last week with its playoff destiny, as well as county bragging rights on the line. The Lions played much the opposite, scoring on their first possessions of the first and second quarters and fumbling the ball to Trinity on their opening drive of the game.
“The gameplan for Pinewood is for us to play relaxed,” he said. “It took us a while last week to settle down. We’re taking the opposite approach this week.”
It’s the Patriots’ first trip to the playoffs since a streak of five straight appearances from 2004-07 during the program’s first years under current head coach Keith Wasson. It included a trip to the GISA finals in 2007 and an eventual loss to Tattnall Square.
“No matter what they’ve had, their players play hard,” Prisant said. “We played them when I was [an assistant] in Statesboro. Keith always gets the most out of them.”
Pinewood, located in Bellville, has relied on the running of seniors Ethan Kumpula (No. 23) and Dalton Johnson (No. 40), who have combined for nearly 2,000-yards and 15 touchdowns on over 300 carries while splitting the offense between the wishbone and spread formations.
At 5-9, 180-pounds, Kumpula had 958 yards and seven touchdowns heading into last week’s game while averaging nearly 6.5 yards per attempt. He is also the Patriots’ lone senior on the roster.
“They’ve got a young team and they try to get the ball to those two as much as possible,” Prisant said of Kumpala and Johnson. “They’re a hard-nosed football team and very physical.”
Johnson, a 5-9, 180-pound junior much in Kumpala’s frame, had 820 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to go with 133 pass attempts, completing 59 of them for 689 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Kumpala has more than a third of Pinewood’s receptions with 17 for 141 yards.
Friday’s winner advances to a semifinal matchup against either Trinity Christian (6-4) or Westfield (9-1), with the Hawks knowing they have a chance to host another postseason game next week in the GISA Class AAA semifinals.
“We’re not happy with being just where we are,” Prisant said. “And I don’t think they are either. We’ve got another opportunity to do something special this week.”