On an October night in Alabama, Wesley Miller started to believe.
The Heritage Academy sophomore defensive back had just taken part in the Patriots’ 33-7 drubbing of Tuscaloosa Academy on Oct. 4. The win gave the Pats eight straight wins to start the season without a single loss, and it strengthened the belief Miller had long held.
“When we got to 8-0, I was like, ‘We got this. We can beat any team,'” he said.
But he never imagined it would be like this.
On Friday, in the MAIS Class 5A semifinals, Heritage Academy didn’t simply beat Pillow Academy, as they did in a 26-13 home win just one week before their game in Tuscaloosa. This time, the Patriots demolished the Mustangs, 47-14.
And it was in typical Heritage Academy fashion: A dominant run game from senior back KJ Smith and the Pats’ offensive line. A 33-7 halftime score. A pair of Pillow interceptions returned for long scores, one by Miller and one by senior Noel Fisher. And, even in the state semifinal, a running clock enacted by virtue of the mercy rule, something the Pats never quite expected but could never rule out.
“It’s always a possibility with us,” Fisher said.
Anything has been possible for the Patriots (13-0) this season — except losing.
Now there’s just one game left: next Friday’s state title game against rival Starkville Academy in Jackson. Only one thing left to do.
“There’s only one goal,” Smith said, “and it’s finish. Finish. Finish. Finish.”
Friday, Smith had a score for each time he delivered the word “finish.”
By the time he’d run right for a 23-yard touchdown, cut back left into a wide open hole to score from 3 yards out, sprinted untouched through the middle of the Pillow defense for a 27-yarder and cashed in from 9 yards out after a questionable-at-best out of bounds call, the Mustangs were certainly finished with Smith.
“We felt like going into it that we could come out and run the ball,” Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said. “There were a couple runs where the push was so big that KJ kind of got confused on where to go.”
Smith credited his big day to the blocks he got from his offensive line — “the best O-line in the state,” senior quarterback Carter Putt said — and from receivers downfield. But Putt made sure his running back got his due.
“KJ had one of the best nights he’s had since he’s been here,” Putt said. “That’s just great for me because I didn’t do anything tonight, really, besides handing the ball off to him, and he goes and does his thing. I’m perfectly fine with that if we’re winning that much.”
After Smith scored his third touchdown of the game, Putt gathered the Pats’ defensive starters. “‘Get us the ball back,'” he told them.
The Patriots did something better.
With three minutes left in the second quarter, Miller picked off a floating pass from Pillow’s Shane Houston Stephens at the Patriots 6-yard line to tack on six more points to what had been a 19-7 Heritage Academy lead. Then, Fisher seized a bobbled pass caused by a hit from teammate Austin Dotson, evaded a tackle from Stephens and raced 75 yards into the end zone. About 40 seconds later, Fisher, the Pats’ placekicker, knocked through his third extra point of the game.
“I kind of used the whole play clock trying to catch my breath,” the senior admitted.
As Fisher regained his breath, Harrison and the Patriots were able to exhale. A tie game after the first 12 minutes was suddenly a blowout after 24.
“When your defense scores 14 points, you’re supposed to win big,” Harrison said.
The Patriots made sure they did just that, scoring twice more early in the second half to take a 40-point lead and put the mercy rule into effect.
On the Pats’ first possession of the half. Putt connected with Banks Hyde down the right side, but Hyde was ruled out of bounds at the Pillow 9-yard line, though he never came all that close to the right sideline. Smith made sure it didn’t matter, hugging the very same sideline for a 9-yard touchdown on the very next play.
Later in the quarter, Fisher hauled in a Putt pass over the middle and outstripped a few Mustangs for a 44-yard score — Putt’s only passing score of the day, a rarity.
It capped a streak of 33 unanswered points for Heritage Academy, which didn’t seem likely after a slow first quarter. With the game tied at 7-7 and four seconds left in the first quarter, the Mustangs stuffed a Putt sneak on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
But as they’d done all year, the Patriots bounced back. They soon forced a punt, earned a roughing the passer call to extend their drive, and made the Mustangs pay for it by marching down the field to set up Smith for a 3-yard score.
“They’re so physically dominant that even when things go wrong or they make mistakes, they cover up for it,” Harrison said.
The same was true on defense. After Stephens and the Mustangs found early success through the air, the Pats tightened up their secondary and bolstered the pass rush. They evicted Stephens from the pocket on seemingly every pass attempt after the first quarter.
“Nobody’s gotten pressure on him like that, including us the first time,” Harrison said. “I almost started to feel bad for him at one point.”
Harrison said he didn’t go into Friday’s game expecting such a lopsided result; he thought the Patriots would eventually pull away if they played to their best ability. But perhaps that was modesty: Of the Pats’ 13 wins, 11 games have been decided by 20 or more points. Eight of those wins came by a margin of 30 or more.
Now Heritage Academy has one more task ahead: a rematch with Starkville Academy in Friday’s final. The Patriots won Round 1 in Starkville on Oct. 18 by a score of 42-7, but they know that game no longer matters — just the one in front of them. And as Friday showed, they are more than ready.
“We’ve preached all year, ‘Go finish,’ and now we have that opportunity,” Harrison said.
Heritage Academy 47, Pillow Academy 14
Pillow Academy 7 0 0 7 — 14
Heritage Academy 7 26 14 0 — 47
HA — KJ Smith 23 run (Noel Fisher kick), clock 4:44
PA — Jack Reichle 6 pass from Shane Houston Stephens (kick good), clock 3:26
HA — Smith 3 run (kick failed), clock 8:32
HA — Smith 27 run (pass failed), clock 5:24
HA — Wesley Miller 94 interception return (Fisher kick), clock 2:59
HA — Fisher 75 interception return (Fisher kick), clock 1:03
HA — Smith 9 run (Fisher kick), clock 11:08
HA — Fisher 44 pass from Carter Putt (Fisher kick), clock 4:33
PA — Reichle 3 run (kick good), clock 9:02
First downs 23 20
Rushes-yards 24-159 27-213
Passing yards 164 208
Comp.-att.-int. 9-24-2 7-13-0
Penalties-yards 2-25 6-51
Fumbles-lost 3-0 2-1
RUSHING: Pillow Academy — Christian Belk 11-62, Shane Houston Stephens 7-60, Jack Reichle 4-29, Jordan Sykes 2-8; Heritage Academy — KJ Smith 17-168, Austin Dotson 4-28, Noel Fisher 1-3, Carter Putt 3-8, Reid Huskison 1-(-1), Braden Davidson 1-(-3).
PASSING: Pillow Academy — Shane Houston Stephens 22-44, 164; Heritage Academy — Carter Putt 7-12, 208; Mack Howard 0-1, 0.
RECEIVING: Pillow Academy — Jack Reichle 8-64, Alex Lindsey 3-37, Hagan Wilson 4-27, Gavin Lessley 2-14, Jaden Simcox 2-13, Christian Belk 3-9; Heritage Academy — Banks Hyde 3-98, Noel Fisher 1-44, Davis Fitch 1-32, Sam Hannon 1-19, Jared Long 1-15.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.