The schools were founded just five years and 27 miles apart and for the same reason, so it is no surprise that Heritage Academy and Starkville Academy would be rivals.
While much has changed since those schools opened their doors in the 1960s, the rivalry remains intense.
“It’s such a fun game to coach in because with both sides, you’re not worried about effort in this game,” Patriots coach Sean Harrison said Wednesday as his team prepared for Friday night’s game against the Volunteers. “You’re not worried about lack of focus. It’s good football the way it’s meant to be played on both sides.”
Adding to the intensity of the matchup is that this game almost always means something. More often than not, the winner of this game wins a district title. For the past three years, that team has been Heritage, which is on a five-game winning streak against Starkville Academy and now holds a 27-26 edge in the series.
That includes two games each of the past two years, with HA beating SA in the regular season and in the playoffs; in 2019, that playoff game was the state final, a 55-10 rout. But Volunteers coach Chase Nicholson sees the experience gained from that playoff run as a plus, noting that his senior-heavy roster has been through a lot of high-pressure games.
“We’ve got a three-year starter, Randall Futral, at quarterback,” Nicholson began. “Colby Allen at linebacker is a two-year guy; senior Brady Johson is a second-year wideout; Porter Skelton is a three-year defensive end; Charlie Cox is a three-year left guard; Brody Bennett, the superback, another senior. A heavy senior class who were all part of that team in ‘19 that went to a state championship.
“There’s a lot of experience there, a lot of lessons learned along the way.”
Harrison certainly has taken notice of Futral.
“It’s still the same, well-coached, fundamentally sound, don’t-make-a-mistake defense they’ve always had,” he said of the Vols. “Randall Futral has done a great job carrying the ball this year as well as throwing it, so that added dimension has made them tough to prepare for.”
Not that preparing for the Patriots is a breeze. Heritage has scored 42, 39, 41 and 42 points in racing to a 5-0 record, including a forfeit victory last week over Washington to open district play. Quarterback Mack Howard is coming off of a stellar effort against South Pontotoc, throwing touchdown passes of 30, 14 and 17 yards during the second quarter and running 7 yards for a first-quarter touchdown as the Patriots stormed to a 42-7 halftime lead and coasted home.
But while Howard is getting deserved attention, Harrison, like most coaches, gives credit to the guys up front.
“The O-line was one of our biggest question marks coming in, and we’ve had to roll guys in and out due to injuries and such, and they really just keep on ticking,” Harrison said. “We’re excited about their progress.”
Nicholson expects Harrison’s teams to show progress, praising his rival’s program.
“Coach Harrison does a great job,” Nicholson said. “He’s installed his system, and they’ve had great players coming in and out of there over the years.
“They always have a good quarterback. The year they won the state championship in 2019 they had a really good quarterback (Carter Putt). He was a three-year starter. A lot of it is knowing the system, understanding the system, and adapting the system to your guys.
“They’ve got a two-year guy now, and he backed that guy up as a freshman, so he’s seen a lot. I think it’s part about of what coach Harrison does well over there. He’s got a system, and they adapt to their guys.”
And they will be well-armed for battle. Harrison said his team is as healthy as it has been this season, with 31 players expected to dress Friday night.
“This will be the most kids we’ve dressed for a game,” he said.
And if history is any indication, the Patriots will need a lot of them. It’s that kind of game.
“It’s about playing great defense, playing great special teams and playing great offense,” Nicholson said. “We’ve got to score points, because we know they’re going to score points. We’ve got to keep them out of the end zone because they’re going to score points, and they’re going to try to keep us out of the end zone because we’re going to score points.
“As far as rivalries go, it’s a pretty dang good one.”