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Coach Early gets defensive with Heritage

Region 8-AAAAA Football Preview

POSTED: July 23, 2014 12:00 p.m.

The Heritage Patriots will start the 2014 football season with their third coach in as many years on Aug. 22 when they face off against in-county rival Rockdale County.

Beloved six-year coach Chad Frazier left the Pats at the end of the 2012 season for a post with Villa Rica, which led to a 5-5 season last year. Frazier was replaced by long-term assistant Mike Parris for one year, but animosity within the community encouraged Parris to depart for fellow Region 8-AAAAA school Loganville.

Now, Wendell Early is ready to make his and his team’s presence known in Conyers and all throughout the region.

“We’ve got talent and size and speed and we’re excited. We think that we’ve got a great chance to be very competitive,” first-year Heritage football coach Wendell Early said. “We’ve got some of the most loyal, hard-working kids around.

“Also, there are some great coaches out there, but there are only so many good administrations. We have one of the best administrations around. We have a great athletic director in Chuck Landy and a great principal in Greg Fowler,” Early noted. “They have helped me with the possibility of putting together a great, great program, and I am so happy to be here.”

Early comes to Heritage via Shiloh and St. Pius. Before his tenure as an assistant at those institutions, Early was the head coach at struggling South Forsyth for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

Early’s new stent at Heritage will be just his second attempt at patriotism as his first head coaching gig came with Berkmar’s perennially frustrating team decked out in red, white and blue.

From 1966 to 2002, Berkmar had just seven winning seasons, including a 6-4 effort in 1999 that followed closely on the heels of three consecutive 5-5 seasons. After just three years at the helm, kicked off by a particularly rough 0-10 inaugural year, Early’s Berkmar Patriots were a 6-4 and 7-3 playoff team out of an exceedingly competitive Region 8-AAAAA in both 2004 and 2005.

Although both Berkmar teams would lose to eventual semifinalists Walton and Dacula 35-0 in the first round, it was their first two state playoff games ever.

“The situation at Berkmar was very unique,” Early said, indicating the transient student population. “There are probably 50 apartment complexes in the Berkmar district. People would jump in for a year and jump out. We took inventory my last year there and I think there were seven kids who played with us all four years.

“We were able to keep a core group of kids together and find some success. GHSA rules say a kid can play six quarters a week, and most of our kids were playing six quarters per week,” Early mentioned. “We played a lot of football that first year. We had some great kids, some good, strong, tough kids who played hard.”

He would leave Berkmar with a 23-29 record after five years, the second-best five-year span in the school’s history.

Although Early has experience taking struggling teams to the playoffs, he steps into a vastly different situation with Heritage. The Patriots have experienced one of the more consistent periods in school history over since 2010 as they have made the playoffs with a winning record in each of the last four seasons and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs for just the second time ever in 2011.

Despite a short lull in the middle, the last 12 years for Heritage have been moderately successful. Since 2002, the Patriots have ended with a winning record eight times and have made it to the playoffs six times.

Since 1976, the Patriots have never experienced more than four straight losing seasons.

“It was very difficult, but this school is very different from Berkmar,” Early admitted. “Heritage has been a playoff team. They’re a very competitive program. It’s a very different situation. The nice thing is that they do have a history of competitive success, and we’re looking at taking it to the next level. That’s what our goal has been.

“This is a different community. I’ve been finding kids in the last few weeks whose dads played football here. We never had that at Berkmar,” Early added. “It’s a very different situation.”

The secret to Heritage’s success under Frazier and Parris, though, was no secret. The Patriots were all about defense.

In 2013, Heritage opponents averaged just 20.36 points per game, including 21.63 points per game for region opponents. In Frazier’s final season, 2012, Heritage only allowed opponents to score 14.64 points per game with an average of 15.38 points against region opponents.

In an all too often offense-dominated Region8-AAAAA, the Patriots delivered winning seasons while scoring just 19.86 points per game in the last two seasons.

“I’m a very big fan of ‘Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,’” Early said. “There have been some great things going on here all the way back to Frazier and then Parris and down to me.”

Early is no stranger to defensive teams, though. In his first year at Berkmar, the Patriots won a game against Central Gwinnett 3-0. They would end up forfeiting the game due to an ineligible player, leading to the winless season.

“We’ve left those things along. I don’t fix things if they ain’t broke. There is no doubt that defense has been the name of the game here at Heritage, and honestly we expect that to continue. We have a great defensive coordinator in Toby Whiting, and he’s just an excited young guy and he’s got a terrific staff of guys around, and we’re as excited as we can be about that,” Early mentioned. “We’ve got some great players.”

With powerhouses like Gainesville and Flowery Branch and Clarke Central routinely scoring 40 or more points, a defensive mindset seems almost out of place in modern football. Even still, Heritage has found a way to succeed with that strategy and they hope to continue doing so.

“Defense wins games and offense sells tickets,” Early joked. “That’s kind of the way we’re looking at it, no doubt.

“Regardless of how good your offense is, you’re obviously still going to have to stop the other guy’s. It’s all about getting a stop and getting off the field for the defense,” Early added. “Offensively, we feel like we’re going to be okay. We’re in a spread option type offense, very up-tempo, a very fast pace, and the kids are taking to it like ducks to water. The kids are having fun with it. It’s a fun offense to run, and we’ve got some talented kids on that side of the ball, too.”

Although early was reluctant to make any specific predictions, he did make his feelings about Heritage’s future known.

“I think we’re going to be okay. I think we’re going to be competitive on both sides of the ball.”

Parris left Heritage after a tumultuous community frequently spoke their distaste for his leadership, leading to his one-year tenure.

Although Parris’ team met the same end as Frazier’s final team, with both Patriot squads losing in the first round of the playoffs, the new coach seemed to receive far more flack than his predecessor ever did.

That may be due in part to Heritage’s quick drop-off from 2012 to 2013. In Frazier’s final season, the Patriots scored an average of 24.63 points per game while only giving up 14.64 points per game.

In 2013, however, Heritage allowed opponents an average of 20.36 points per game while only scoring 15.01 points per game. With such a moderately dramatic shift, along with numerous off-field complaints, fans and backers quickly ran the first-year coach off to Loganville.

Understanding the reality of Heritage football and the school’s lofty expectations, Coach Early denies feeling any of that same pressure.

“I’ve had nothing but a great experience with these people here. I tell you what, there couldn’t be more accommodating people here. We’ve got a great mom’s club and a great dad’s club here. It has been fantastic,” Early mentioned. “We’re not going to look to the past. We’re going to look to the future.”

“All that being said, we’re still undefeated, so that probably helps,” Early laughed. “We’re building a foundation for a program here that is an extended family. We’re building a program here that is a real program. Everybody has a football team. Not everybody has a football program.”

To that end, Early is also working to start a youth league to build the football program the way he sees it.

“There are no Patriots in youth league,” Early said. “That’s where we’re going. We’re going to have a program that serves our community. The people here are on-board.”

When speaking about the playoffs, however, Early understands a little bit differently the kind of pressure he and his staff will be under.

Heritage has been a playoff team for the last four years, but the task of continuing such a streak in 2014 will be immensely more difficult with the region’s growth and expansion to ten teams, half of which made the state playoffs in 2013.

“It’s myself and most of my staff’s first year here. Every year, everybody changes. You get personnel changes, coaching changes. Several teams in the region have new coaches. It’s a brand new season and anything goes,” Early pointed out. “I don’t put much stock in looking at teams from last year because half these teams have new coaches.

“I can’t even tell you who we play game two. We play Rockdale Game One, and that’s who we’re talking about,” Early added, referencing the season-opener rivalry game.

Rockdale defeated Heritage last season 9-7 for their first win in the decades old series since 2008.

“I’ve been told we’re going to fill up Charles Evans Stadium. We’re going to fill up the stadium and it’s going to be a big, big night,” Early said of that season opener, referencing the season dedication to a Wounded Warrior Project fundraiser. “I’m looking forward to that night in a lot of ways.”

Game Two is no slouch on the schedule, though, as the Patriots will start their region off with another in-county rival as they make the short trip to cross-town Salem High School’s Seminoles. Last season’s game was a 17-14 Heritage victory, and it could be another barn-burner this year.

Early is the ninth coach at Heritage since the school started playing football in 1976. Of the eight before him, just two made the playoffs in their first season: Al Pellegrino in 2004 and Parris last season. Pellegrino benefitted greatly from the work of Randall Owens the three seasons before his arrival and Parris had the fortune of following Frazier.

 

Now, Early gets the chance to follow Parris, and his Patriots will show what they can do on the field just one month from now as they open in what will likely be a sold-out Evans Stadium.

 

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