October 11, 2018 10:43:03 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
The waiting is nearly over.
For months, the teasers have been all over the Heritage Academy field house. Whether it is the pictures of the Starkville Academy football team's 2017 state championship rings or the "check list" poster board that lists beating Starkville Academy as the team's No. 1 goal, Heritage Academy has looked forward to its next meeting against its archrival for a long time.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Patriots will finally get their opportunity when they take on the Volunteers in a pivotal Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 showdown at J.E. Logan Field.
"The biggest message we preach to the kids is yeah, it's Starkville, yeah, the rivalry, but this is the third year in a row we're playing them for the district championship," Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said. "That's a testament to our kids' work, a testament to their coaching staff, a testament to their team that we continue to meet to decide this thing. I am proud of our kids and where we have gotten to. The message this week is that this is a trophy game."
Harrison earned a 26-17 victory in his first taste of the rivalry in 2016. He said the rivalry is "fun" even though the nature of it has changed over the years because so many of the players know each other and so many things about their peers. Harrison said the recent success of both teams makes the game more appealing because there is a lot more riding on the outcome.
Last season, Starkville Academy rode the momentum of a 17-14 victory against Heritage Academy in Columbus to a district championship and a victory against Indianola Academy in overtime in the MAIS Class AAA State title game. The Volunteers haven't slowed down, either, as they are off to an 8-0 start (2-0 in district). They have three shutouts this season and have allowed only 60 points.
Heritage Academy (6-2, 2-0) has bounced back after losses to Lamar School and Pillow Academy to earn victories against Magnolia Heights, Leake Academy, and Winston Academy. Last week, junior quarterback Carter Putt threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-7 victory against Winston Academy.
The Patriots have used a balanced attack that features junior running back Kelvin "K.J." Smith leading the ground assault.
Harrison feels the game will come down to limiting turnovers and mistakes and great defense. He believes his team is capable of playing at a high level on defense, which is something he knows the Volunteers will be able to do thanks to defensive coordinator Brad Butler and assistant coach Bubba Davis.
Heritage Academy will counter with an offense that has put up 296 points. The Patriots have scored less than 35 points only once.
"I want them to have fun. I want them to enjoy the moment and the opportunity," Harrison said. "It has been kind of funny this week. I have heard more Xs and Os talk out of the kids than I have heard in three years, so that is interesting. I think they are locked into the magnitude of the game other than the rivalry."
Harrison said he doesn't expect to get any of his injured starters out for this week. He hopes to have a few of them back for later in the season, but he hopes the Patriots' depth will hold up against a group of Volunteers that goes 44 strong. C.J. Jackson and Payne Lancaster are the only players listed with one position on Starkville Academy's roster.
Despite all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game, Harrison said he wants his players to relax, to play loose, and to have fun. The Patriots shouldn't need any extra motivation to make sure they're ready to deliver an effort that will allow them to accomplish their No. 1 goal.
"Beating Starkville is always at the top of our goal list, and it always will be," Harrison said. "It has been a lot of fun the past three years. The next goal to win the district championship right under it is still very much in reach and could be decided.
"We're really hitting our stride now. We really hit it with Leake (a 41-20 victory) and it continued on through this past Friday, so we're really playing our best football of the year right now. I am excited to see that carry over to this Friday. They're playing great football. Like I said, those coaches do a good job, especially coach Butler with the defense. They're stingy. They get to where they're supposed to be. They run to the football really well, which is why taking care of the football is so important. We're going to get some opportunities to strike and we need to make sure we take advantage of them because we don't expect them to make many mistakes."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.