Championship formulas are difficult to determine.
Egos, statistics, and friendships are just some of variables that can spoil a coach’s best intentions.
But when individuals cast aside troublesome thoughts like who is getting the most carries and who is scoring the touchdowns and embrace intangibles like teamwork and unselfishness, wonderful things can happen.
Through two games, Heritage Academy football coach Barrett Donahoe couldn’t be happier with what he has seen from his players. Like any coach, he has nitpicked mental and physical mistakes that have prevented his team from playing a perfect game. Other than that, though, the Patriots have picked up right where they left off from their championship run in 2012.
Hunter Anderson, Jace Caldwell, Parker Short, and Blake Ballard rushed for touchdowns, Logan Bell caught a touchdown pass from Austin Fitch, and Graham McCain kicked another field goal as part of another team effort in a 40-6 victory against West Lowndes High School at Panther Field in Columbus.
The victory helped Heritage Academy (2-0) complete a sweep of its Mississippi Association of Independent Schools-Mississippi High School Activities Association private-public school games to start the season. The victory against the Panthers was the first meeting between the teams.
The Patriots earned the victory thanks to a dominating run game that ground out 276 yards on 47 carries and a multi-faceted attack that plugs in different parts and keeps clicking.
“Our guys are just doing a tremendous job of rotating,” Donahoe said. “We have guys over here (on the sideline) at the end of the game who are cheering for other guys to score when it is taking carries away from them. That is a great atmosphere to have. I think unselfish is the best way to term it. I watch what we’re doing offensively and I still think we have to be better early. I thought we weren’t crisp early. It took us a while to get rolling, but, overall, I felt good about our performance offensively.”
Donahoe admitted he wasn’t sure how the Patriots would respond to winning the MAIS Class AAA, Division II title last season. Thanks to a stout defense, the Patriots hit their stride and won their final five games of the season to take the title. As the season progressed, Heritage Academy players settled into roles and started to believe they could win the school’s first state crown since 1986.
Despite losing multiple key pieces from that championship team, Heritage Academy has reloaded with additions like Fitch, a senior quarterback who hadn’t played football since he was a freshman, Caldwell, a transfer from New Hope High School who played baseball at Heritage Academy in the spring, and Walker Brown, a wide receiver who was at the school last year but didn’t play football.
“We were very uncertain about our chemistry in our locker room. We didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Donahoe said. “Winning solves a lot of problems with chemistry in the locker room. Our guys have bought into what we’re doing. We asked them to come out here tonight and play a disciplined ballgame. We were disciplined in every aspect of the game. We made some things happen in special teams. Defensively, we played assignment football and were where we were supposed to be and our defensive linemen got low and controlled the line of scrimmage. All of those little things. I thought that shows where they are because they are doing what we ask.”
Caldwell, who played football at New Hope, said he and Fitch, another transfer from New Hope High, knew a lot of the guys on the Heritage Academy football team. In fact, he said they played football with several of them in the city’s youth leagues. Caldwell added that the newcomers to the program share a desire to win a state championship, much like the returning players want to add another trophy and ring to the ones they won last season.
Heritage Academy’s balanced attack has been one of the most impressive features in its first two victories. On Friday, Anderson paced the Patriots with 86 rushing yards. Short added 64 and Caldwell had 52 and provided a bruising complement to Short, who is one of the team’s faster players.
For Caldwell, his primary role has been as a leader at linebacker. He also is back taking handoffs from Fitch and playing a role he never thought he would see after playing for so long at linebacker and as a lineman.
“I think we came in here and the roles coach Donahoe has established for us we’re all doing well,” Caldwell said. “I know the three of us (pointing to Anderson and Fitch) are real familiar with each other in the backfield. I feel like we were meant to be together.
“I think all of the backs are working beautifully together. I wouldn’t change anything that is going on right now.”
Anderson agrees, even if his running style is similar to Caldwell’s. He said the team’s more experienced players made sure to make the newcomers feel at home and that they knew what they needed to do to help the team. He said he doesn’t mind mixing up his running style and becoming more of a speed back if that’s what it will take for Heritage Academy to continue to have success.
“The guys that we have had have really shown everybody new what to do,” Anderson said. “Everybody who has known what to do has worked their butts to figure out what they need to do and what their spot on this team really is.
“I would not change anything that has happened this far. Our whole preseason looked about as good as it could. It really set the tone.”
Without a quarterback, though, everything could be tenuous. But Fitch has erased any doubt and brought a sense of calm to the offense by playing with poise. He hasn’t forced the action in the first two games and has looked comfortable with a dilemma many quarterbacks would love to have: When you have multiple playmakers, which one is the best one to pick?
“At practice, I am with the offensive group a lot and it has been a really good mesh together,” Fitch said. “I feel like when I get in the huddle, we have a good, quality group and I can tell them what to do, and I have a lot of confidence in my offensive line, so by the time I get the ball I am pretty comfortable with having time and being able to throw it.”
Fitch admitted he couldn’t have imagined how well everyone has fit into their roles. He said the unselfishness Heritage Academy has shown in the first two games comes from the fact so many of the players have know each other for so long. He also said winning — not individual statistics or touchdowns — is the most important part of the equation to everyone.
“Coming in, I was like, ‘They are losing a lot of people,’ but we have seemed to pick it up and the ones that are new and the old are coming well together,” Fitch said. “I feel this team is really unselfish and it doesn’t matter who is scoring a touchdown and we’re all going to pick each other up.”
When asked to assess the performance of Fitch, Anderson’s comment might as well have referred to how well the Patriots have played in their first two games.
“For him to come in here and not play football since ninth grade, which blows my mind, he has done a very, very good job,” Anderson said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.