PHOENIX — In September, when Daniel Ramirez looked out over his brand new football team practicing on their brand new field, before they even tried on their brand new uniforms for the first time, he had no idea what to expect this season.
Not only had this team never competed as a unit before, but there were many who had never played football at all. Add in that there were only two seniors and two juniors on the team, and an inaugural season where wins came few and far between wouldn’t have been that hard to imagine.
And yet, there Heritage Academy-Maricopa was on Saturday night at Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, playing for a state championship trophy.
They couldn’t quite get it. They came up against a Skyline Prep squad that brought a lot of size and physicality, bringing a reality check to the Heroes who relied mostly on speed. The Bengals — led by Michael Williams with 111 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and Calvin McGruder with 183 total yards and two touchdowns — came out on top 46-18 to win the Canyon Athletic Association Division 1 championship, and the Heroes left with the runner-up trophy instead.
“They were just the more physical team,” Ramirez said. “You can’t build strength and physicality in a week. So that’s the only thing that can stop us from making that leap and coming back here next year.”
The Bengals dominated the entire first half, but in the second half the Heroes showed some of how they were able to improbably pull off a 6-1 regular season record. Freshman quarterback Courtney Palmer started finding his guys, who left their defenders chasing them around the field. Malik Charles was the biggest beneficiary, with 102 yards receiving and both his team’s touchdowns.
So while many of the players were left crying on the sideline, the championship game provided a glimpse into what works for Heritage as they head into the program’s second season, as well as what needs to be improved.
Hard work and continual improvement is what got them to that game in the first place, despite the lack of preseason expectations.
“It was a lot of hard work and a lot of challenges, but they bought into what the program was about,” Ramirez said. “Character is a big thing here, and the kids saw it.”
It wasn’t until the first game of the season at Imagine Prep Coolidge that Ramirez knew his team would actually be able to get a bunch of wins in its first year. He said there’s never any certainty until you see them run their first play or make their first hit.
“When they were able to move the ball and score and make a few stop, that’s when I realized we’ve got something here,” he said. “There was a lot of offseason here, but that’s what I knew they took it all in.”
Now that he gets a real offseason where he know who his guys are, and one that will hopefully not be affected as much by the COVID-19 pandemic as vaccines start to roll out, Ramirez hopes to build up interest in the program, letting people know they’re here and ready to compete.
That’s all in the future, though. On Saturday night, despite the loss and the cold and windy weather, he was appreciative of all this unexpected season has given the school.
“With COVID-19, I’m just happy we were able to play football,” he said. “From August until now, we just continued to play. We had no delays in what we were doing. We beat COVID in a sense, and we were able to play.”