WAKE FOREST — When Jason McGeorge arrived for his first day as football coach at Heritage High, he was met by “a bunch of young-faced, skinny ninth- and 10th-graders.”
“They were a little bit scared and didn’t know what they were in for,” McGeorge said.
Three years later and in the midst of its second varsity season, the Heritage Huskies football program is looking to build tradition.
At the core of that mission is a group of seniors, the first in the program’s short history.
“That’s been a big challenge for us this year,” McGeorge said. “They are seniors and people expect them to do something a little bit more special because they’re seniors, but they’ve been in this role for three years now.
“They sometimes don’t understand that they’re starting traditions. Being a first senior class and being the first to do a lot of stuff, you’re laying the ground work. One of our first mottos was ‘laying the foundation.’ We’re laying the foundation for a house, and if it cracks, we’re in trouble.”
The team, originally comprised of many players who had begun their high school careers at surrounding schools, is now one unit with one mission.
Players came from schools with years-long traditions where they were relegated to junior varsity squads as young players.
“Day one we were all coming from different schools,” said senior wide receiver Robert Powers. “No one knew each other. They kind of threw us all together. Now we’ve been together for three years, and the chemistry has grown.”
While they could have chosen to stay at their previous schools, they looked at Heritage as an opportunity, McGeorge said.
Forced to compete on the junior varsity level in its first year, the team made its varsity debut in 2011.
The Huskies were brought into arguably the strongest conference in the area.
“Coming into a strong Cap Eight Conference you have some dominant football teams that have been very good for 8 or 10 years now,” McGeorge said. “And in Wake County, in a saturated school system, it’s hard to break through so quickly, but just because we’re a new school doesn’t mean that our guys can’t compete.”
The Huskies finished 3-8, including 1-6 in conference play last year. Heritage allowed 33.6 points and scored an average of 14.5 per game, and was outscored 283-79 against conference opponents.
“Mentally it was tough,” said senior wide receiver Justin Lucas. “It was kind of difficult going into each game knowing you’re at a disadvantage. You try to fight through that but it’s still in the back of your mind.”
This year, the players say they are more disciplined and confident, with higher team morale when they go out on the field Friday nights. Coaches have watched the team grow physically and mentally.
“When you watch film from last year, we were a very weak team, a very nervous team,” McGeorge said. “I think last year when they went out on that field the first time playing upper-class football, it was very eye-opening to them.
“So having that one year under their belt, being able to play varsity football and then come back this year, I’ve seen they understand the game a lot better and the schemes a lot better.”
This year, Heritage is 3-3 and has split its two first conference games.
Last week, the Huskies trounced Sanderson 55-7, and Friday they will face a struggling Enloe team still looking for its first win of the year.
The Huskies have grown light years from year to year, said McGeorge, who has watched his senior class develop with the program.
At Heritage, the class of 2013 were the leaders from Day One.
“Showing up being a junior, you don’t know what it is to be a leader,” said tight end Darius Evans, now a senior. “You have to teach yourself how to do that. It’s difficult at first. You have to fight through the (adversity).”
McGeorge said the challenge has been both a gift and a curse.
While the young players got lots of on-field experience early on, they didn’t have the benefit of learning from older players.
“The hardest thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand about the senior class is they never had senior leadership,” McGeorge said. “A lot of them might have been in a program where they were on JV and maybe they didn’t have a lot of interaction with the seniors … and then they come over here and they are the seniors for three years.”
The transition was difficult for the players, but now they’re trying to be leaders for this year’s sophomores and juniors.
To lighten the load a bit, the seniors have a strong group of underclassmen stepping in and stepping up in the program.
The team is led by sophomore quarterback Blake Walters, who started eight games as a freshman and was voted team most valuable player.
“They’re excited that he’s leading our program,” McGeorge said of the team. “That mentality has allowed some of our sophomores to come in and play meaningful roles for us.”
As this year’s seniors grow and the sophomores work toward their senior years, McGeorge just wants the program to continue growing. Meanwhile, the players aren’t the only ones developing, he said.
“This is my first head coach job,” McGeorge said. “They’ve learned and I’ve learned year by year, and hopefully that will continue to help our program get stronger.”