JACKSON — Heritage Academy football coach Barrett Donahoe believes his team is finally turning the corner.
Donahoe saw his Patriots take a huge step forward Friday in a hard-fought 41-35 loss to perennial power Jackson Academy in a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, District 1 matchup at The Brickyard.
While the Raiders made it at least 11 straight victories in the series, the Patriots made sure the three-time defending state champion worked until the final horn.
“We did so many things well offensively,” Donahoe said. “It was our most complete game on that side of the ball. Defensively, we had a hard time keeping up. The Jackson Academy offense is so explosive. That is why there are one of the best teams in the state. We hung tough though and we were there in the end.”
In his first year at Heritage Academy, Donahoe feels a 37-10 loss to Madison-Ridgeland Academy might have been the turning point of the season.
“We challenged our players after that game,” Donahoe said. “We told them that now was the time to change the culture in the program. Efforts like that were not going to be acceptable. As coaches, we challenged ourselves too.
“As coaches, we met the Sunday after the game. We had a long talk about how we can put players in a better position to make plays. That is our job as coaches. I knew we had to play better, but I also knew we had to coach better. We responded with our best week of practice.”
Heritage Academy (2-4, 1-2) followed that weekend of soul-searching with a 35-14 win against Lee Academy. Still, playing one of the elite programs in the state the next week was a different challenge.
“I thought we turned the corner in the win over Lee Academy,” Donahoe said. “Then if we had any doubts, our effort Friday night took care of those. Our record does not show the improvement we have made as a team. We play one of the most difficult schedules in academy football. I told the kids at the beginning of the year this was going to be a process and it was going to take hard work.”
Heritage Academy responded with its best offensive output of the season. It racked up 467 yards of total offense, including 250 passing for quarterback Cade Lott, who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more.
On the ground, Lott scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards. Through the air, Lott found Parker Dunaway for touchdown catches of 65 and 9 yards. The other Heritage Academy touchdown was a 26-yard scoring run by Parker Short. Graham McCain converted all five extra-point kicks.
“We were able to move the ball up and down the field,” Donahoe said. “It was our best offensive moment of the system. We did that against a really fast, physical defense. There is a lot you can take from this game. However, for a program to grow, you have to take that next step and win these types of games.”
Jackson Academy (6-0, 2-0) has won 26 straight games, and 33 straight at home. The Raiders entered the contest allowing just 12.9 points per game.
Jackson Academy rushed for 311 yards. Duncan Maxwell ran eight times for 173 yards, including touchdown rushes of 18, 90, 8, and 30 yards. Nicholas Guy added a 62-yard scoring run and quarterback Colin Welsh hit David Ford on a 22-yard scoring strike.
Heritage Academy scored first on a 1-yard run by Lott. Short’s 26-yard run late in the second quarter cut the Patriots’ deficit to 21-14 at halftime. Heritage Academy scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including back-to-back scores after recovering an onsides kick.
Heritage Academy will fight to keep its postseason chances alive Friday night with another district game at Magnolia Heights Academy.
“It is a big game,” Donahoe said. “Not only is it big for this team and their playoff chances, but I also think it is big for our program. This is another situation where we are trying to build something. To build something, you win these types of games. I think the kids realize that. They know this game is important for this season and for seasons ahead, too.”