PLANTATION, FLORIDA – Overcoming adversity, they say, builds character.
The American Heritage Patriots football team certainly buys into that statement.
For good reason. They’re a team that has repeatedly overcome obstacles all season long, and guess what? They’re still standing.
The Patriots (12-1) are two wins away from being crowned state champions.
But they won’t get ahead of themselves. First, there is business to take care of, on Friday night at home against Jacksonville Bolles (9-4) in the Class 2M state semifinals.
Should Heritage prevail, it will get the winner of Miami Central-Lakewood in the state finals. Central, one of the top ranked teams in the nation, is the heavy favorite in that game.
For Heritage, it’s been a season of taking one step at a time.
The glue to the team has been the strong leadership by Heritage’s star-studded senior class, headlined by 5-star receiver Brandon Inniss and 4-star running back Mark Fletcher.
“Our brotherhood,” Inniss said. “That’s what we preached the whole year. Determination. We overcame adversity so much this year.”
From Game 1, it became clear the 2022 season was going to present challenges.
In their opener, on Aug. 20, at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., the game started at 10 p.m. due to lightning. By the time Heritage was closing out a 38-20 victory, it was nearly 2 a.m.
Two separate hurricanes that impacted the state of Florida caused two Heritage games to be moved. The first was on Oct. 1, when the Patriots took on district rival Cardinal Gibbons on the road at noon on a Saturday. On a blistering hot afternoon, Heritage won, 21-2.
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for the club, and coach Mike Smith has been able to keep everything in check.
“It’s hard,” Smith admits. “But when you have 27 seniors, they know how to stay [even]. They know how to stay level through the whole thing.
“When you get behind, stay level. This group has done a really good job, staying locked in. Staying in the moment. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff here to get to this point. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff in the past to be ready for these moments.”
Heritage’s lone loss came to perhaps the best team in the state. On Sept. 16 at Chaminade-Madonna, the Lions’ won a shootout, 42-34, in one of the best games of the season in South Florida.
Chaminade is a heavy favorite to win the Class 1M state crown.
Heritage has a tougher road to the top, with the possibility of facing Central for it all.
In the playoffs, a rare mid-November hurricane prompted Heritage to face Inlet Grove on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The lopsided contest went to the Patriots, 43-7, in a physical game.
Five days later, Heritage faced Boynton Beach on Saturday afternoon at home, and won in a blowout, 49-0, setting up the rematch with Cardinal Gibbons.
Heritage took care of business in the Class 2M-Region 3 final, rallying back from 10-points down to win, 31-20, setting the stage for the semifinals against Bolles.
“We ended one game at 2 a.m.,” Inniss said. “We played two hurricane games. We played Saturday early morning games. The amount of adversity this team has gone through so far, no other team has gone through that. I feel like that’s what has carried us, our brotherhood.”
Inniss, a Ohio State commit, lived up to expectations all year. The senior set a school single-season record for catches (58) and receiving yards (1,107), to go with 13 touchdowns.
Fletcher, the workhorse, rushed for 1,736 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Senior place kicker Wylie Shaw has been one of the best in the state at his position. Senior defensive end Jamarcus Smith has 10 sacks.
At Heritage, there have been plenty of seniors stepping up.
“I tell my brothers, ‘I’m going to give you my all. I just need you to give your all back,’ “ Fletcher said. “When we do that with each other, we can’t be stopped.”
Fletcher has never lost focus of Heritage’s quest to be a state champion. It’s been a hectic year for the senior, who a few weeks ago decommitted from Ohio State, and is now considering Florida and Miami, as well as some other schools.
“Our coaches say, ‘Keep the main thing the main thing. Stay focused,’ “ Fletcher said. “ ‘God will put you through many obstacles, but we’re a team. We just thrive off adversity. That’s how we’re built.”
Senior quarterback Blake Murphy stepped up with a sensational senior season, passing for 2,121 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Murphy is a prime example of a player who has dealt with adversity. He dealt with injuries the past few seasons. Healthy, he has guided one of the most gifted schools in the state.
“I’m having way more fun than what it was,” Murphy said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to show who I was and the opportunity to show my talent. Now, this year that I’m healthy, I’m showing everybody what I can do.”
Smith has long felt Murphy had special abilities. It was just a matter of keeping him on the field.
“That’s a kid that for two years, he’s been hurt,” Smith said. “He missed a season. To see that kid develop into what he is now. I’ve been telling people since last spring: When he’s on, and he’s healthy, he’s the best quarterback in South Florida. I believe that. I’ll put him up against anybody in South Florida.”
Murphy noted that the culture around the program changed in the summer.
“Coach Mike turned it around since the summer,” Murphy said. “It’s been instilled in us since the summer to be great.”