ORLANDO – Falling into a 13-point hole not even three minutes into the game, served as American Heritage’s wake up call.
The Patriots then scored 21 unanswered first-half points to take a lead that it would never relinquish but had to battle down to the final seconds to capture a 35-33 win over Ponte Vedra Friday evening in the Class 5A state championship game in Camping World Stadium.
After Ponte Vedra cut American Heritage’s lead to 35-33 with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots tried to use its final offensive possession to drain as much time off the clock as possible. They were able to get it down to the final 10 seconds before having to punt. Heritage punted the ball in bounds, but Ponte Vedra’s returner elected not to field the kick – allowing the ball to roll dead and the clock to run out – sealing the victory for the Patriots (14-0).
As soon as time expired, the Heritage players flooded the field in celebration – having clinched the Patriots’ third state championship in four seasons and culminated a year that saw them finish as South Florida’s (Miami-Dade and Broward counties) only undefeated team this season – with wins over Georgia’s Colquitt County, perennial power New Jersey Don Bosco Prep and district 16-6A champion Miami Northwestern.
First-year head coach Patrick Surtain, who served as the team’s defensive coordinator for the past four seasons before being promoted to head coach when former coach Mike Rumph took a job as an assistant at the University of Miami, said ending the season with a hard-fought victory was the icing on the cake.
“To come back and redeem ourselves after the way last year ended and the way this season began,” Surtain said, referring to the Patriots being knocked out during the second round of the playoffs in 2015 and the team losing to Miami Booker T. Washington in this year’s preseason kickoff classic.
“People were doubting us, saying that we weren’t a good team. But like I told the guys, the only thing you can do is put your head down and go to work. Then they come back and run the table…what a way to finish it out.”
Ponte Vedra (13-1) did make the Patriots work for the win.
Trailing 28-20, Ponte Vedra went on an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive and had the chance to tie the game at 28 with just under eight minutes to play. The Sharks went for two, but Heritage’s Tyson Campbell was able to dart in front of a Ponte Vedra receiver and knock the ball away.
Heritage extended its lead to nine when Anthony Schwartz returned the ensuing kickoff to the Sharks 25-yard line and Jason Brown capped the short drive by plowing his way through the Ponte Vedra defense for a 5-yard score – notching his third rushing score of the game and putting Heritage up 35-26 with 5:39 left in the game.
The Sharks still made it interesting again by going on another 80-yard scoring drive and cutting the lead the 35-33 after the extra point.
“[Ponte Vedra] played a [heck] of a game, they made us battle for 48 minutes,” said Surtain, a former NFL All-Pro and a member of the Miami Dolphins 50th Anniversary Team.
“That’s what we’re groomed for, though – to get to this moment and come through in the end.”
Brown showed the poise and smarts of a senior quarterback headed to Harvard next year. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound dual-threat signal caller finished his high school career by rushing for 72 yards to go along with the three scores as well completing 13 of 16 passes for 81 yards and a second quarter touchdown strike to senior Dontavius Butler, which put the Patriots up 21-13.
Brown was quick to share credit with his teammates after the win.
“I have to thank my [offensive line] and my receivers, my running backs and my defense, I couldn’t have done any of this tonight without them,” Brown said. “This means the world to me. But it means even more to me that we got this done for the players on this team that have never been here before.”
Surtain heaped the praise on Brown, though.
“He’s one of the toughest kids I know. He just battles…he’s a warrior,” Surtain said. “He’s a leader for us and we depend on him to make big plays for us – and he did tonight. My hat goes off to him and our other 22 seniors for the way they played tonight.”
Patriots junior running back Jordan Johnson rushed for a game-high 132 yards on 21 carries while Miles Jones, who starred in Heritage’s state semifinal game, caught four passes for 22 yards and rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown Friday.
Ponte Vedra senior quarterback Nick Tronti ended his career with a strong performance. The Sharks’ offensive bell-cow accounted for five touchdowns Friday – going 16-for-21 with 265 passing yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 23 yards and two scores.
Receiver Marshall Few, who was Ponte Vedra’s leading pass catcher this season, finished with 154 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions – including a 76-yard catch and run that put the Sharks up 6-0 on the Patriots 45 seconds into the game.
While Ponte Vedra was able to go on long scoring drives, the Heritage defense did get consistent pressure on Tronti. Patriots junior defensive end Andrew Chatfield led the team with eight total tackles – four tackles for loss – and a game-high two sacks.
After the game, Chatfield
“I knew this was going to happen, I knew we’d make it to this point,” Chatfield said. “We were grinding, pushing it and working non-stop for this. It feels good to hold this medallion around my neck…we just had to stay together as a team and just keep fighting.”