Published Sunday, November 25, 2012
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
The Heritage School may have bulldozed its way into this week’s Class AAA championship game through four dominant quarters of football on Friday.
But in essence, the Hawks were simply laying the final bricks of a long and winding road towards achieving respect in the GISA — an arduous seven-year project involving so many different sets of hands.
For some, however, it may have been well worth the sacrifice involved.
“My brother’s team. Talking to all them, they struggled,” said senior Candler Rich, whose brother Christopher was Heritage’s first 1,000-yard rusher before going on to eclipse his older sibling’s rushing record in just his first three seasons. “I never would have seen the program getting to this point. When we moved up into Triple-A this year, being realistic, we never would have seen ourselves here.”
“Here,” for Rich and his teammates, is a victory away from winning the school’s first GISA football championship having previously never made it past the opening round of the state playoffs in three previous attempts.
It’s come in a year that’s included victories against traditional south Georgia contenders like Stratford Academy (6 state titles, 9 region), Mount de Sales (4 state, 12 region) and now Westfield (13 region).
Taking the final steps involves defeating a 11-1 Deerfield-Windsor program in Albany that has 15 region and three state titles of its own, the first of which was earned by a lineup included Heritage’s current head coach, Kevin Prisant in 2003.
This year’s teams look nearly identical, from the striped shouldered uniforms (Deerfield’s are red and blue, Heritage’s blue and white) to their respective star running backs. To go with Rich — who added four touchdowns in Friday’s 42-10 semifinal win over Westfield of Perry and 151 yards rushing in just over two quarters of action — the Knights boast 1,000-yard rusher Kh’Ron McClain, who posted a 176-yard effort on Friday.
Deerfield finished with 372 yards rushing in its 24-17 semifinal victory over Stratford. Heritage had 320 through three quarters against Westfield after leading 28-3 at halftime.
But the two program’s histories couldn’t be further apart.
It wasn’t until this year that the Hawks managed to win their own division while also earning the program’s first home playoff game as well as an initial postseason victory.
Several players that were a part of Heritage’s inaugural 1-9 lineup in 2006 were on hand to watch the Hawks’ win on Friday. Over the first five years of existence, the program managed to stay above .500, even with a pair of distinguished Coweta County Hall of Fame coaches at the helm, neither one of which produced a playoff team.
Yet without them, it might have never taken flight. In past years, Heritage coaches have talked about the challenges of getting student-athletes to commit to playing football including some that passed on the sport altogether. Some seasons began with so few players that orange cones or plastic drums were used as blockers in place of linemen so the team could run its offensive schemes.
In Friday’s victory, however, the Hawks won a game based on their unselfish play on defense against Westfield’s wing-T, which was bottled up throughout the night, managing 62 yards rushing in the first half and making the brunt of its first downs needing long gains.
“I told these guys they had played a great first seven games, [but] the last four we got a little selfish,” said Heritage defensive coordinator D.J. Clay. “We had a come to Jesus meeting and told them what they had to do. We told them it can’t be second and six. It has to be second and nine and third and sevens and third and eight. They were able to play assignment football and not get caught up.”
The difference maker this fall may simply be the program’s coming-of-age between a large group of veterans and the stability under Prisant and Clay for a second-straight season. It’s the first season since 2009 that the current Hawks haven’t had to learn new offensive or defensive systems.
A group of a dozen seniors this year — the majority of which are key contributors — remembers how much they were counted on two years ago as sophomores when then head coach Danny Cronic had 16 ninth and 10th graders on the roster.
“I remember when we finished 4-6 a couple of years ago,” said senior Ben Dudley, who became a multi-tasker that year as both an offensive and defensive lineman as well as both a kicker and punter that year under the tutelage of former assistant Chris Hanson, now at nearby Trinity. “I knew we had a good senior class. We’ve all been together since like the fifth grade. We all just had to come together to make it happen. Our coaches have done a fantastic job.”
Others, like senior lineman Richard Ebersbach, stuck with football even after suffering a torn ACL as a sophomore, an injury that put a strain on playing varsity baseball. But his smile on Friday could have supplanted those memories for good.
“It’s just an amazing feeling. It’s hard to even put into words,” he said. “We’ve all worked hard to get here.”
Some, like volunteer assistant Murray Parks, have put in countless hours with each of Heritage’s four head coaches have been there through every big game along the way.
“We’ve got one more,” he said.