Published Thursday, November 29, 2012
By DOUG GORMAN
When the Heritage School’s dozen seniors buckle their chin straps Friday night for their final high school football game of respective careers, it will no doubt be the biggest contest of their lives as they battle the Deerfield-Windsor Knights in Albany for the GISA Class AAA state championship.
The game will put an exclamation mark on four years that have been highlighted by its share of ups and downs. Two years ago, most of the group was being thrust into starting roles — if they hadn’t been already.
Most played under three different head coaches, but consistency under the current staff led by head coach Kevin Prisant and defensive coordinator D.J. Clay has made a difference.
Just a decade removed from his own playing days at Deerfield-Windsor, Prisant has compiled a 19-4 record at Heritage School, including an 11-1 mark this year with its first region title.
“Our coaches have done a tremendous job,” said senior lineman Ben Dudley following Friday’s 42-10 semifinal victory over the Westfield School.
Prisant, though, has spent most of this week trying to sidestep all the attention that comes from coaching a state title game against his alma mater.
He would rather his players garner the attention, especially the seniors who have helped pave the way for the team’s recent success.
Still, staying focused hasn’t been a problem during the first three days of practice.
“It’s almost surreal,” said senior running back Candler Rich, who has rushed for 1,805 yards and 22 touchdowns and now has both Harvard and Yale on his heels among college recruiters. “You always have dreams and aspirations, but to be here is just an amazing feeling, and I think that is a testament to our coaching staff and how we have been able to revolve around them.”
Rich, who is the school’s all-time leading rusher, admits Prisant has brought some stability to this year’s senior class.
“We had to learn a new offense every year,” Rich said. “This year, we came back knowing what the game plan was all about, and knowing what our coach is all about. It is always good coming back knowing what to expect.”
It took the Hawks just seven years to get to the state title game after fielding its first team in 2006.
Senior wide receiver Garrett Jones was only in sixth grade when he served as a manager for the Hawks' first varsity team, one that also included Rich’s older brother, Christopher. It wasn't always fun watching that first team post a 1-9 record.
“I remember seeing those guys get pounded,” said Jones, who grew into a 6-foot-5 standout in both football and basketball. “Now, here we are getting ready to play for the state title. It really doesn’t get any better than this.”
Ironically, both Jones and senior teammate Tyler Nix — who equally proved his versatility by playing both guard and fullback on offense in addition to a starting role on defense — have become part of Coweta County’s first father-son tandem to both play in a state championship football game. It’s an honor also shared with Jones’ younger brother Cole, a freshman tight end.
Both Otis Jones and Scott Nix were teammates for head coach Max Bass’ Newnan High’s 1981 Class AAAA finalists.
For their sons to avoid the same fate, Heritage School will have to find a way to slow down a Knights team that hasn’t lost a game to a GISA opponent all season. Deerfield-Windsor got to the state title game with a 24-17 victory over Stratford Academy.
The Knights won their first state title when Prisant was a senior and are going after their fourth title Friday. Heritage School is playing for the state title in just its first season as a member of GISA Class AAA.
“We feel great. There was some doubt and some questions about us, but we have been able to back it up,” said senior offensive center Elliott Smith.
Many of Heritage School's seniors have played together long before high school, and it’s helped them bond on and off the field.
“Some of us have been together since middle school and looking back at what we accomplished it’s amazing,” said senior lineman Richard Ebersbach, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL while contributing as a sophomore.
Others, like quarterback Joe Bonner, have been starting since their freshman year. In 2009, Bonner was pegged by then head coach Larry Harrison to run his double-wing as a freshman, leading the team to its second straight state playoff berth in Class AA. The following year, while hit with heavy losses to graduation and an influx of sophomore teammates like Rich in the starting lineup, Heritage School dipped to 4-6 in an injury-plagued year where head coach Danny Cronic had seven combined juniors and seniors.
An influx of players from a successful middle school program led by coach Drew Henderson may have offset what could have been a similarly disastrous start to this season when Bonner returned from preseason camp with a shoulder injury that kept him out the first five games of the year. Instead, sophomore backup Brad Macke led the offense to a 5-0 start including Heritage School's first win over a Class AAA school by beating Southland on Sept. 28.
Since returning under center, Bonner has thrown for 604 yards and 11 touchdowns including TD passes of over 70 yards in each of the team’s last three victories.
“It really is a dream come true,” Bonner said. “When you are playing football as a little kid, you hope to one day be playing in the high school state championship. We don‘t want the opportunity to slip by.”
Prisant knows this team’s senior leadership will be difficult to replace.
“When I first got here we had quiet seniors, and that’s fine. It was just a different type of leadership,” Prisant said. “But now when Joe Bonner says, ‘Follow me into a burning building,’ or Candler Rich says ‘We are going to do this,’ they are going to listen."
Years after football was an afterthought at The Heritage School, the program has found credibility both on the field and in the classroom after posting a combined record of 18-4 the past two seasons.
“Whenever you walk in the halls or walk into class somebody has something positive to say,” said Ebersbach, who along with his brother John, have both played for state championships with Heritage School's baseball program. “It is incredible to see how our school has come together.”
Prisant has called on his seniors to keep the younger players focused, and they are listening.
“We are just trying to prepare like we have all season,” Smith said. “We don’t want to get too hyped up around it.”
Heritage School enters this week’s game still averaging 42.4 points an outing on offense while allowing just 17. Last week’s 10 points allowed was more indicative of the Hawks’ defensive effort during the season having struggled the previous three games.
That forced what Clay referred to as “a come-to-Jesus meeting.”
The Hawks signature win this year might have come after shutting out Stratford 35-0 on Homecoming. The Eagles went on to reach the state semifinals before losing last week to Deerfield, 24-17 in Albany.
“I think the victory against Stratford really showed everyone what Heritage football was all about,” Ebersbach said.
Each victory has helped the Hawks grab a hold of history, but last week’s easy win over Westfield showed Heritage School belonged among the league’s elite.
“Last week was confirmation for our team,” cornerback Will Duke said. “We knew our defense was good, but last week it really rose to the occasion. We are going to have to step it up this week, but we have plenty of confidence.”
Both teams will try and control the football. Rich will be the Hawks go-to back. Deerfield will counter with Kh’ron McClain, who also has breakaway speed. In last week’s win, McClain rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
“It is going to be about ball control,” Bonner said. “If we can play defense, like we did last week, I think we have a really good chance.”
Rich knows one of the keys is going to be not making mistakes early.
“They obviously have a good team with three state titles, so we are anxious to get down there and make a name for ourselves, and start a history for our own,” Rich said.
The Hawks have spent the week practicing like it was any other game.
“We are just trying to prepare like we have all season,” Smith said. “We don’t want to get too hyped up around it. We just want to go out there and play like we always have.”
The seniors set the tone for their state title run last summer with some tough workouts.
“They made a decision to get go after it this summer,” Prisant said, “and it has been very impressive.”