CONYERS - For the Heritage football team, the difference between a .500 season and making the Class AAAA state playoffs this year was literally a few plays here and there.
The Patriots finished the 2008 campaign with a 5-5 record in Chad Frazier's second year at the helm, a two-game improvement over his first season.
"Wow, what a team that was so close to being at the top," Frazier said. "This year's team, led by an amazing group of seniors, had an unrelentless passion to do their best. Every practice was a competitive, hard-fought session to get better and prepare for our opponent. Our kids have really matured in the last year and there has been a higher level of commitment to making Heritage a better football program."
Heritage opened the season with an impressive 21-7 victory over county rival Salem, ending a five-game losing streak to the Seminoles.
But the Patriots' season took a turn for the worse with losses in four of their next five games, some of them in heart-wrenching fashion.
Turnovers and penalties on offense haunted Heritage in a 12-7 loss at Habersham Central. A fumbled shotgun snap in the game's final minute was the difference in the Patirots' 40-38 loss at county rival Rockdale.
After bouncing back to beat Winder-Barrow 51-13, Heritage dropped a 31-23 decision in five overtimes to Clarke Central in Athens.
The Patriots' season appeared over after a 26-7 loss at home to Loganville, where, once again, turnovers and mistakes played a key role.
"We struggled with handling the football and penalties early in the season," Frazier said. "We had two games specifically where our defense played great and our offense more than doubled in yardage our opponent, but we lost the games."
Heritage saved its season with a three-game winning streak, including back-to-back shutouts against Madison County (7-0) and Apalachee (20-0).
After a 40-12 win over Monroe Area, the Patriots had a shot at state playoff berth in Region 8-AAAA.
But Heritage's hopes were dashed in a 17-0 loss to Cedar Shoals in the season finale.
Offensively, Frazier was pleased with his team's progress as it switched to the Pistol this season.
"For the most part, I thought our offense did a lot of good things," he said. "We moved the ball up and down the field and scored some points. We weren't sure how it would go since we change to the Pistol and started throwing it and running the option more."
The Patriots will lose all-region offensive linemen Adrian Crane and Clint Werner to graduation as well as wide receivers Martell Jones, Diondre Brooks, Anthony Landy, JR Rhone and Zane Barefield.
However, quarterback Garry Peters will be be back next fall along with running backs Devon Holmes and Abraham Walker and offensive linemen Devon Stainrod and Dalton Heath.
On defense, the Patriots were led by four senior all-region players - defensive tackle Melvin Jones, defensive end Justin Jones, linebacker Cory Alford and defensive back Reggie Juin.
"Our defense dominated. It really stepped up this year and won some ball games for us," Frazier said. "We had some very good leaders on that side of the ball, too. Our defensive staff did a great job of getting them prepared each week and the kids responded. I was extremely pleased with that phase of our game."
Even with the loss of four all-region performers, Heritage's defense should be strong again next season as linebackers Calvin Vann, Travis Martin and Chase Davis, defensive end Rufus Jenkins, and safeties Chris Polascik and Cameron Crane return.
"We'll be working on fundamental ball handling, blocking and tackling," Frazier said. "Our special teams play will also need to improve for us to be in better position to win some tight ball games."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.