American Heritage survived a setback to open the season.
The team overcame another to open Friday’s Class 5A state final.
And as such became state champions again.
After surrendering 13 points in less than three minutes to open the game, the Patriots rallied behind quarterback Jason Brown and eventually hung on to beat Ponte Vedra 35-33 in a shootout at Camping World Stadium.
American Heritage (14-0) won its third state title in the past four seasons, and completed its first undefeated season in school history.
And the Patriots, ranked No. 11 nationally by MaxPreps, did so following a lopsided loss to Miami Booker T. Washington in a preseason classic that many of them agreed put them on a course to the title.
“After that [Booker T.] game, we had a lot of doubters and people saying we weren’t as good as we were,” said Heritage coach Pat Surtain, who took over as coach this season after former coach Mike Rumph accepted an assistant coaching position at the University of Miami. “I told my team that in tough situations is when you make tough people. They just continued to work and won 14 in a row.”
Brown, a Harvard University commitment, ran for three touchdowns and threw for another as Heritage scored 21 unanswered points to erase the early onslaught by Ponte Vedra (13-1).
“We just needed to stay calm because we knew adversity could strike,” Brown said. “I can’t thank that offensive line enough and say what a great job those guys did.”
The Sharks’ own star quarterback Nick Tronti, a Charlotte commitment, kept the game close even after American Heritage tried to pull away in the second quarter.
Tronti, who threw for 3,063 yards and 31 touchdowns this season and ran for 17 more scores, completed 16 of 21 for 265 yards and three touchdowns Friday.
He also ran for two more touchdowns, including a 2-yarder with 3:06 left.
American Heritage picked up a key first down with its running game, which amassed 278 yards overall. The Patriots were unable to secure another first down that would have allowed them to run out the clock with the Sharks out of timeouts, but Zack Thomson punted the ball deep enough for the remaining 12 seconds to elapse and end the game.
“The guys were just telling each other to just keep pushing and stay together as a unit,” said defensive end Andrew Chatfield, who led Heritage’s defense with eight tackles (four for losses) and two sacks. “We had to dig down deep. I’m so proud of my team.”
Ponte Vedra struck quickly on the game’s first possession when Tronti hit Marshall Few over the middle and Few raced to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.
Leading 6-0 after a failed extra point, the Sharks caught Heritage by surprise with an onside kick they recovered at the Patriots’ 45. Four plays later, Tronti found Hal Swan for a 15-yard touchdown pass to extend Ponte Vedra’s lead to 13-0.
Once the Patriots’ offense finally got the ball, it took little time for them to come back.
Heritage scored 21 unanswered points starting with Brown capping a six-play, 67-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 13-7.
After forcing a punt, Pat Surtain Jr. set up the Patriots’ go-ahead score with a 31-yard return to the Ponte Vedra 17-yard line. Miles Jones capped a four-play drive by taking an option pitch from Brown and sweeping around the left side for a 3-yard touchdown.
On Heritage’s ensuing drive, Brown threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dontavius Butler three plays after Jordan Johnson burst up the middle for a 54-yard run.
Ponte Vedra cut the deficit to 21-20 with 3:12 to go in the second quarter when Few caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Tronti, who earlier in the drive executed a fake punt with an 18-yard pass to Few on fourth-and-10.
Brown, who backed up Ohio State commit Torrance Gibson the last time Heritage won a state title, finished his career 22-2 as the Patriots’ starter.
Brown ran for 72 yards and threw for 81 Friday and picked up the one thing that was missing in his high school career as a starter — a state title.
“This is just the best feeling in the world right now and I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Brown said.