Starkville Academy 9th grade head football coach Chad Peterson has seen his Volunteers improve by the week.
If not for a stellar second half performance by Heritage Academy's Thomas DeGrange Thursday night, SA's progress might have been rewarded with its first win.
DeGrange totaled four touchdowns, three coming after the intermission, to lead the Patriots past the Vols 28-13 at J.E. Logan Field.
"Our team just keeps getting better and better," said Peterson. "We've just got to get over that one hump. I think if we could ever win just one, that would be the final stone we're trying to turn."
DeGrange tallied three of his four scores via his rushing attack, first finding the end zone with just over six minutes left in the first quarter to put Heritage up 6-0.
To answer, Peterson went to SA's bag of tricks as Vols quarterback Jake Goodwin dropped back and passed to begin a hook-and-ladder play that ended up in the hands of running back Michael Miller for a game-tying touchdown.
"We practice that play every single day and just do it a bunch of times," said Miller. "That's the first time we've got to run it in a game though. It set the momentum for the whole team, both offense and defense."
The Vols built on their lead later in the quarter as Drew Harrell found pay dirt on a short run to put SA up 13-6, a score that held until the half.
Once the third quarter started, however, DeGrange took over. The athletic freshman sandwiched a 40-yard punt return for a touchdown between scoring runs of 37 and 57 yards to cement Heritage's win.
"I think we outplayed them in the first half and they outplayed us in the second," said Peterson. "(Heritage) just has some really good ball players."
Statistically, Heritage out-gained SA 238 yards to 198. Most of the Patriots' offense came via the DeGrange-led ground attack, as Heritage rushed for 209 yards.
Miller finished with 99 rushing yards for SA, and also added an interception from the defensive side.
Goodwin led the Vols' passing attack, completing five of his 10 passes for 80 yards.
Kirby Cox led SA receivers with a pair of catches for 50 yards.
Despite the losing effort, Peterson praised his team, particularly Miller.
"He's been our go-to guy all year," said Peterson. "But our line has been doing good too, and we've got several others who are really playing well. We just need that first win. It's coming. They will be rewarded because they've worked very hard."
8th Grade Game
Heritage 38, SA 22
Heritage broke out the big play in a 16-point win over Peterson's eighth grade squad.
The Patriots held a 26-14 halftime advantage, and broke off a pair of long touchdown runs in the second half to cement the win.
"We've been playing better," Peterson said. "We've been battling through some tough injuries though and that's hurt us."