The warmup act to the season was painful.
But ever since then, American Heritage has shown the focus and execution of a team on a mission to become a state champion again.
Led by a stellar defensive effort, the Patriots overcame their latest talented opponent with a 24-6 victory over visiting Miami Norland on Friday night.
American Heritage (5-0), ranked No. 17 nationally by MaxPreps, won its fifth consecutive game following a lopsided preseason defeat to then-nationally ranked Booker T. Washington.
The Patriots entered this season vying to win their third state championship in the past four seasons.
This one would be the first under former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl defensive back Patrick Surtain, who was promoted to head coach in the offseason after former coach Mike Rumph was hired at his alma mater, the University of Miami.
“That loss we were an undisciplined football team,” Surtain said. “That fell on me. We had 13 personal foul penalties in that game and that’s not us. We needed to correct that and we knew we had a team that was here for the long haul.”
Since then, four of the Patriots’ five wins have come against Colquitt County (Georgia), Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey), Miami Northwestern and Norland — all schools with multiple state championships in their respective states.
“We knew when we lost [to Booker T.] that our season wasn’t over,” Heritage defensive back Will Allen said. “We had to keep playing good. Now we’re 5-0 and we just have to keep the train moving.”
Leading 3-0 late in the third quarter, Heritage’s defense swung the momentum in its favor when Tyson Campbell popped the ball loose and Allen recovered at the Norland 23-yard line.
“It was a huge play,” Allen said. “I came on the blitz and I got picked up, but Tyson Campbell made the huge hit and I was able to come up with the ball.”
On the ensuing play, Anthony Schwartz ran for a touchdown on a double-handoff, end-around run to give the Patriots a two-score lead.
Following another defensive stop, Heritage quarterback Jason Brown, who had completed only 2 of 14 passes to that point, lofted a perfect 70-yard touchdown pass to Matt Solomon.
Brown later hit Laress Nelson over the middle for a 65-yard touchdown pass.
Brown finished with 153 yards passing after the two touchdown passes, and Miles Jones ran for 85 yards on seven carries.
Heritage’s defense allowed 225 yards but consistently shut down drives before Norland advanced into the red zone.
The Vikings (3-2) moved as far as the Heritage 23-yard line while still trailing 3-0. But a fumble recovered by Alyn John ended the Vikings’ scoring chance.
Norland scored in the final minute on a 7-yard touchdown run by Alec Carr.