It wasn't the start Heritage had envisioned against Lakeland. The Patriots were sacked on their first offensive play of the game and then snapped a punt high and out of their own end zone to fall behind 2-0 just two minutes into the game.
Good thing Class 3A No. 8 Heritage had the next 46 minutes, as it regained its focus en route to a 42-16 win over 10th-ranked Lakeland in IHSAA Sectional 18. The Patriots (8-2) will now travel to Tippecanoe Valley (8-2) at 7 p.m. Friday.
“We sure didn't execute the game plan going in, because our goal has always been to come out hot and score early and keep our pedal down, but our kids responded well after the adversity,” Heritage coach Dean Lehrman said.
Heritage won without just relying on its offense in this game as the defense scored on its own. Ahead 7-2, Heritage pressured Lakeland quarterback William Kelly and forced a fumble, which Dustin Swaidner picked up and took into the end zone.
“My first reaction was 'I gotta get it, I gotta get it, I gotta get it,' I got it,” Swaidner said. “It was the story of my life, the best thing that ever happened to me. I got in the end zone, first thing I could think of was jump.”
The defense also shut down Lakeland as it limited the Lakers to 12 rushing yards and 20 passing yards in the first half. The Patriots committed to stopping the Lakers from running the ball, routinely putting eight or more men in the box with single coverage on receivers.
While the defense limited Lakeland, Patriots quarterback Conner Sheehan put them away with three touchdowns, two of which were through the air. The first touchdown came on a fourth-and-10 from Lakeland's 15-yard line. Lehrman decided to go for it because the first-string kicker was injured and the conditions were sloppy. Sheehan came through with a touchdown pass to Wil Knapke to make it 7-2.
“Well the previous two plays I threw the ball out of bounds, and this ball I had to come in and keep the ball in bounds and let our receiver make a play,” Sheehan said.
Even Heritage's special teams got involved. It gave the Patriots the fast start in the third quarter they didn't get at the beginning of the game.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Lakeland's Devin Dimos fumbled on the 40-yard line, and Heritage's Brenton Lockett picked the ball up and took it in for a touchdown to stop any potential momentum from building for the Lakers.
“That was epic. Everyone was shocked,” Swaidner said of the play. “I didn't even know he had the ball. I turned around and saw him running. It was just amazing.”
The win moves Heritage in the semifinals where it will play Tippecanoe Valley. It also gave the Patriots a win that eluded the team last year.
“It's just, I can't explain it with words,” Swaidner said. “It's just a big emotional thing for us. Last year we got knocked out by Jimtown in the first round, and this year we came out and had a fire under us.”