September 14, 2013 8:24:12 PM
The letters -- JA -- stand for excellence.
Now in his fifth season as head coach at the school, David Sykes smiles and refers to himself as a "simple-minded" guy when he explains his program's championship formula.
"If you're fundamentally sound, if your team is very disciplined, and if you have a collection of athletes and they are committed to the program, then you have a chance to win," Sykes said.
If only it was that easy for everyone else.
Jackson Academy showed Friday night why it is the top-ranked private school team in the state of Mississippi with a 37-0 victory against Heritage Academy at C.L. Mitchell Field.
Duncan Maxwell played only the first two quarters and led the Raiders (2-2) with 13 carries and 92 yards. He scored on a 34-yard run and caught a 20-yard pass from Colin Welsh that was part of a 31-point first half that all but sealed the deal for the Jackson Academy, which has never lost to Heritage Academy (3-1).
"We're not very big, but we have some guys who can run and we have some quickness," Sykes said. "We have some kids who aren't as big physically, but they are very strong. We have more depth than we did a year ago. We have a number of kids that kind of all look the same. They aren't the biggest team physically, but boy, do they play hard."
Jackson Academy has won all four games it has played on the field. On Wednesday, though, the school was forced to forfeit its first two games against Northeast Lauderdale and St. George's due to an eligibility issue with one of its backup players. The Clarion-Ledger reported earlier this week that the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools' ruling pertained to the "Bonafide Move Rule," which requires a student to have been successfully moved by the family before the team's first competition. In addition to forfeiting the two games, Jackson Academy football program was placed on a one-year probation and fined $500. The Raiders are still eligible for the AAA, Division I playoffs.
Last season, Jackson Academy lost to Jackson Prep 34-10 in the MAIS Class AAA, Division I state title game. The loss denied the Raiders a chance to win their fourth championship in as many years. In fact, the last time a team not from Jackson won the AAA state crown was 1999 (Pillow Academy).
Maxwell was a key component of the runner-up finish last season, gaining 1,325 all-purpose yards and scoring 17 touchdowns. Listed at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Maxwell never will be confused with a bruising back. Instead, he and the Raiders make up for what they lack in size with speed.
The Raiders also can strike with the efficiency of the deadliest snake.
Their only mistake came on their opening possession when Hunter Anderson intercepted a Nick Conley pass and returned it to the Jackson Academy 44-yard line. The Patriots used a 3-yard run by Parker Short to convert a fourth-and-1 from the 35 and keep the drive alive. Unfortunately, Daniel Kennedy intercepted an Austin Fitch pass three plays later. The turnover appeared to sap all of the Patriots energy and the Raiders capitalized. Jackson Academy wasted little time in turning to Maxwell, who ripped off a 13-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the Heritage Academy 28 to help set up the first score, a 4-yard run by Kennedy.
"It was a just a matter of going back out and getting a stop and getting the ball back," Sykes said.
Sykes said the Raiders have played from ahead and played from behind, so he wasn't worried about the opening turnover, his team's only one of the game. He could afford not to be concerned because the Raiders return nine of 11 starters on defense from 2012. He said the team knew it had a chance to be pretty good on that side of the ball, but he wondered how the team would replace four of five starters on the offensive line. While Sykes said it has been a "work in progress" in the first three games, he was extremely pleased with the amount of progress that unit has made. The Raiders showed how good they could be Friday night, controlling the point of attack and pressing forward into the second level of the Patriots' defense.
That confidence blossomed with 24 seconds left in the first quarter when Maxwell zigzagged through the defense for a 34-yard touchdown run.
Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe tried to motivate his players after the first quarter by telling them in the huddle they had no rhythm and that they had to re-focus or it was going to be a long night.
Jackson Academy made sure things only got tougher for Heritage Academy. Colin Welsh threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Maxwell, Davis Simmons returned a punt 49 yards for a score, and Josh Hinkle kicked a 30-yard field goal to build the 31-point cushion.
The Raiders put the game away in the third quarter, stopping the Patriots on a fourth-and-1 from their 21. Kennedy then capped an eight-play, 79-yard drive with a 26-yard scoring run. Like Maxwell on his touchdown run, Kennedy was more than a step faster than the defense as he cut back through two would-be tacklers and beat everyone to the end zone.
"We're a very disciplined football team," Sykes said. "Our players understand what our program is all about. It deals with discipline. It deals with fundamentals. It deals with hard work. It deals with commitment. It is not easy to play on our football team. It takes a great deal of commitment, and those guys work extremely hard.
"I think we played our best football game tonight. I think we played complete in all four phases."
It's hard enough to beat any team when it executes that well. But Sykes said his team may have an added edge against nearly every squad it plays because of its success. Jackson Academy has won nine state titles (1995, 1996, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011).
"I think the biggest difference is our kids not only expect to win every Friday night, but it is a matter of how much," Sykes said. "That might sound arrogant, but it is not. That's tradition. That is players who have come before us and they have instilled a great deal of pride and tradition in our program, so our kids are very confident when they go out onto the field. Our opponents, I can't speak for that, but I think that probably has something to do with it as well. It is just the fact that our tradition and knowing that we have a strong program, and it has been a strong program long before I got there."
Donahoe said the Patriots, who won the Class AAA, Division II state title last season, can learn a valuable lesson from the loss. Still, he didn't anticipate the Raiders dominating like they did Friday night, especially after opening the season with three consecutive wins for the first time since 2009. Two of the victories came against Mississippi High School Activities Association opponents (Caledonia and West Lowndes) and showcased the team's wealth of playmakers. On Friday night, though, Heritage Academy gained only 18 yards offense in the first half and offered little resistance.
"You come out and you have success against somebody, you get energy," Donahoe said. "You come out and have success against somebody, you do things well. We didn't have success against them at all.
"(The lack of energy early in the game) is something we have to try to fix. Yeah (I saw it coming). We talked about it. It was overconfidence. It was not fun and it was not pretty. We knew if we came out and performed the way we performed tonight how bad it was going to be."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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