DETERMINATION DRIVES HERITAGE TO PROMINENCE
By Jeff Navin // November 16, 2012
BREVARD COUNTY • PALM BAY, FLORIDA – Everyone agrees that it wasn’t a perfect spiral. In fact, a football program with more tradition never would have taken the gamble. But, Heritage coach Ajay Ulmer needed a quarterback and no one had stood out during spring practice in 2011.
The Panthers finished 0-10 in 2009 under coach Mike Davis as the new school opened its doors and played a varsity schedule it probably shouldn’t have.
Davis, an alumnus of Palm Bay High who had been Bayside High’s coach before guiding Heritage during its first season, moved on to a college coaching job out of state and Ulmer took over less than three weeks before the start of preseason practice. Heritage finished 1-9, with the one victory coming by forfeit.
As spring practice came to an end in 2011, Ulmer had an idea as he watched a freshman tight end and defensive end excel during workouts.
“One day, he asked me to throw the football,” Clinton Moxam said. “Afterward, he asked if I could be a quarterback for my sophomore year. I had always played on the line since I started playing at 12.”
The move was unconventional.
“I knew I had to find a quarterback,” said Ulmer, who graduated from Palm Bay High in 1991, where he played for his father, Artie. “Clint had all the intangibles — he was smart, tough and athletic. He hadn’t played back there, but I thought I could build around that. When he picked up a ball and threw it, he looked like he hadn’t played quarterback before. But, I knew he could run.”
As a sophomore last season, Moxam helped Heritage post a 4-6 record as he learned a new position.
This season, Moxam has completed 39 of 76 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. He also has rushed for 670 yards and 12 touchdowns on 109 carries as the Panthers have rolled to a 9-1 record.
Heritage will hit the road Friday to take on Sebastian River in a first-round state playoff game in Class 6A.
Freshman Josh Gaines leads Heritage in rushing with 977 yards and 13 touchdowns on 109 carries. Senior Kalil Owens, who played for Melbourne High as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Heritage, has rushed for 549 yards and six touchdowns on 72 carries.
Junior Dedric Witherspoon, who guides the Panthers’ defense from his strong safety position, has added 511 yards and eight touchdowns on 91 carries.
“The greatest thing is that we’re not one-dimensional,” said Ulmer. “We have four guys who have rushed for more than 500 yards. That gives us a lot of versatility and makes us harder to defend. We’re always running fake misdirections.”
Usually, a freshman would never receive the bulk of the carries for a playoff team. Gaines has defied the odds.
“I had heard about this kid named Moose,” Ulmer said. “Dedric is his older brother. Back when Dedric was in ninth grade, he was telling me, ‘Wait ’til both of us get here.’ I knew (Josh) was coming.”
Gaines has lived up to his potential.
“He’s rushed for all those yards in just nine games,” Ulmer said. “It’s rare for a freshman to do that in our league. He’s quiet, stays to himself and does whatever you ask. He’s a pleasure to coach.”
Witherspoon thinks his younger brother can be even better.
“It’s fun playing with him — I always knew he could play,” the 5-foot-11, 176-pound Witherspoon said. “I’ve told him about going to the weight room, but he still doesn’t always do that. I’m more disciplined than I was last year, and I’m a little stronger. I love to block and just the hitting to make the block for my man to score.”
As a three-year starter, Witherspoon has seen the changes that go along with winning. He’s not willing to wait until his senior year.
“Everyone has committed themselves and put in the work ethic,” Witherspoon said. “I like the passion everyone has for each other on this team. We still can accomplish what we want to accomplish right now.”
Gaines didn’t like sitting out one game due to a head injury.
“The injury was very frustrating, knowing that I couldn’t be out there with the team,” Gaines said. “We feed off of each one’s energy. We don’t want to bring each other down. I’m excited and happy that I can do all this at this level already.”
Owens knows what it’s like to play significantly as a freshman. He fondly remembers his days at Mel-Hi.
“Josh hasn’t got a big head — he does everything the coaches ask,” Owens said. “He’s put the team on his back. At quarterback, Clint is throwing the ball better and he’s still young. He’ll be even better after I leave.”
A 7-6 loss at home to Palm Bay late in the season spoiled a perfect regular season and prevented the Panthers from winning a Class 6A, District 13 title.
It also has forced Heritage to play on the road against Sebastian River (8-2), which won the Class 6A, District 14 title. Palm Bay will host Stuart South Fork, the runner-up in Class 6A, District 14, in another first-round playoff game on Friday. The winners of those two games will play in a second-round matchup.
“That Palm Bay loss was hard,” Owens said. “I’ve lost all four years to them. Playing Palm Bay again is real important. It’ll be the most intense game in Brevard County this season.”
Witherspoon likes the district rivalry with Palm Bay.
“We made a lot of little mistakes that we know we can fix,” Witherspoon said. “I played with a lot of those Palm Bay guys (in youth football). I don’t know anybody at Sebastian.”
Moxam vows to be ready on Friday night and the next week, if possible.
“We know they’re (Sebastian) athletic and big,” Moxam said. “And they play hard. We need to play a disciplined game and do what we’ve done all season. We also need to tighten it up on special teams. Our offensive line has been real great at working well together. If they worry about my backs and follow them, I might just have to keep the ball and go the other way.”