Soaked in ice water and brimming with emotion, American Heritage coach Mike Rumph gathered his team together in a circle at Legion Field for a heartfelt post-game message.
“I kept telling you guys this is our year,” Rumph shouted. “You made it happen. We’re going to Disney World baby!”
The Patriots (13-1) punched their ticket to The Citrus Bowl — their first trip to a state final since 1998 — with an emphatic 48-16 state semifinal blowout of host Lake Wales. It was another easy Class 5A playoff win for Heritage, which got to rest its starters in the fourth quarter for the third time this postseason.
Remember when the Patriots couldn’t win a first-round game? They’ve put those days in the rear-view mirror. Next up: the Green Cove Springs Clay Blue Devils (10-4), who edged St. Petersburg Lakewood 40-38 in Friday’s other state semifinal.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling to know we got another game to go,” said star running back Sony Michel, who finished with 128 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries. “This team is not so worried about playoff games, first round, second round. We just take each game at a time. I don’t think it’s even hit these guys yet.”
The Patriots hit Lake Wales (9-5) hard on the game’s very first play. Junior Tarvarus McFadden fielded a squibber on the opening kickoff, found a seam and returned it 84 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
Teammate Isaiah McKenzie sprung him with the final block. Both were motivated, they said, to show Lake Wales just how explosive Heritage could be on special teams after reading a newspaper article on Thursday.
“They posted it in our lockers, saying our special teams aren't too great,” McKenzie said. “I looked at it and said they must be out of their minds. We had our struggles in our kickoff team early in the season, but we changed that. With me and Travaris McFadden back there it doesn't seem too weak.”
McKenzie, one of the most electrifying return men in the country, got his chance to return a kickoff for a touchdown, too. After Justin Henderson scored on a 22-yard run to trim Heritage’s lead to 20-7 with 1:58 to play in the half, McKenzie answered with a 93-yard kickoff return for a score. It was his fifth special teams return for a touchdown this season.
“A lot of people sleep on our special teams,” Michel said. “If teams want to get arrogant and kick it to us then they’ve got to pay for it.”
Up 27-10 at the half, Heritage exchanged words with Lake Wales players when they came out to stretch before the third quarter. The Highlanders came over to their side of the field and safety Carter Jacobs said Heritage didn’t like it.
Getting the Patriots angry didn’t help the Highlanders. Heritage scored three quick touchdowns and forced officials to implement a running clock by the end of the quarter.
“I've been visualizing myself for months getting dunked by that water,” Rumph said. “I never would have thought I would be in this situation in my first year. The boys worked so hard for me.”
Herald Writer Bill Daley contributed to this report.