One week after emerging victorious in their most consequential outing of 2019, the Heritage Pioneers have their hands full at City Stadium again.
Last week, they fended off previously undefeated E.C. Glass.
This week, they’ll try to rebuff Liberty Christian.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Pioneers coach Brad Bradley said.
That’s how football is, though. You can never let your guard down, especially this late in the season. And that’s particularly true in this case.
Heritage (8-1, 6-0) can earn the Seminole District regular-season crown outright with a win.
LCA (7-2, 5-1) can force a tie atop the district and improve its postseason seeding if it knocks off HHS, which is the district leader and the top team in Region 3C.
Another scenario has the two teams sharing the title with E.C. Glass (8-1, 5-1). If the Hilltoppers defeat Brookville and LCA hangs on against Heritage, all three teams would finish the regular season with 6-1 district records.
“Any time you have a chance to play for a share of the title, it’s an exciting time,” LCA coach Frank Rocco said. “Our kids are very motivated. It’s kind of like the final exam. We’re just putting everything together [in practice this week] and seeing how far we’ve come since the beginning.”
The Pioneers, though, would just as well not entertain any notions of a three-way tie. Take care of business tonight and they won’t have to.
“The kids did a good job of leaving the last one behind,” Bradley said of Heritage’s focus at practice this week after its biggest win of 2019 to date. “Beating Glass is good, but it was expected for us. I don’t mean that in a cocky way, but we knew we could win the football game.”
That “beginning” Rocco spoke of was a little uncertain. LCA installed a new defense over the offseason and still continued to tweak it throughout the fall. But it’s become a centerpiece of what the Bulldogs do now.
The defense is bolstered by guys like senior lineman Trevor Hatcher and 6-foot-6 285-pounder Zach Rice.
LCA already had a strong quarterback in Josh Nelson (1,268 passing yards) and a quality receiver in Tyler Rose — whom Bradley refers to as “maybe the best receiver we’ll see all year,” — but the run game was suspect.
Enter a three-headed monster in Cade Wycoff, Anthony Moore and TJ Strange, all of whom bring different aspects to the rushing attack to keep opposing defenses off balance.
There was a time heading into the season, Rocco added, when the Bulldogs “didn’t even know if we had one back.”
But LCA came together. Now they’re one of the strongest teams in the district in a top-heavy Region 3C.
“We have our limitations,” Rocco said, “but we certainly have a great group of kids who have bought in and given everything we asked.”
LCA features a variety of looks that can cause opposing teams problems. That was the case in a fierce Seminole battle against Jefferson Forest on Oct. 4, in which the Bulldogs ended up imposing their will on offense and defense.
“We have to play well on both sides,” Bradley said. “They like to do a lot of different things — try to outflank you, a lot of motions and a lot of shifts — and they’re gonna test our discipline.
“On defense they do a really good job. They like to play a Cover-Zero, which is man-to-man. They’ll stack the box to stop the run.”
Rocco thinks this Heritage team might be better than the one that celebrated the Class 3 title last December. A freshman quarterback, Kameron Burns, has stepped up to the challenge, throwing for 1,102 yards so far.
The receiving corps, led by Kyron Thomas and Brian Trent, is speedy and disciplined. And the main running back, KJ Vaughan, eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last week for the second straight season.
Beyond that, though, Heritage’s defense has stood tall. Its offensive line — comprised of Shante Giles, Mike Williams, Emerson Komen and Chris Colbert, is the engine that has powered the offense the last two games, especially.
There’s a chance these two teams could face one another again deep in the playoffs.
Watch for both teams to mix up their offense tonight. Heritage typically does that, getting production out of the passing and running game and letting the situation dictate the style of play. LCA traditionally has been more pass oriented, but Rocco said splitting time with the running game is important to the Bulldogs tonight.
“Brad does a great job of getting those kids tough and physical,” the LCA coach said. “… Nobody’s gonna pound the ball down Heritage’s throat. If we keep them on edge and have some success doing both things, I think we have a chance to move the ball. Defensively, they’re just so physical that we’ve got to … meet force with force.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.