Heritage Hills football delivers quintessential performance to advance to 3A state finals

Kyle Sokeland
Evansville Courier & Press
  • Final: No. 7 Heritage Hills 23, No. 6 Gibson Southern 20

LINCOLN CITY, Ind. — So many elements of this were pure Heritage Hills football.

That’s the simple way to explain what occurred on Friday night. A program with an identity backed by decades of success showed its face in front of a standing-room-only crowd. A basic mentality consisting of running the ball and defense.

That mantra once again put the Patriots in the state championship game.

No. 7 Heritage Hills defeated No. 6 Gibson Southern 23-20 at "The Jungle" in the Class 3A semistate to earn a spot at Lucas Oil Stadium next weekend. It will be the fourth trip to state for the program and the first since 2019.

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This performance harkened back to so many teams that came before it.

“We did exactly what we needed to do,” said Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson. “We just held on and gave everything we had. At the end of the game, that’s Heritage Hills football. Get in the wishbone and you have to stop us.”

Where do you begin? Easy. The first half.

The Patriots led 16-0 at the break but the lead felt larger. The defense held the Titans to 94 yards in the opening two quarters and produced two turnovers. This coming against an offense that hadn’t been shut out in the opening half since August.

The exclamation point came in the final minute. Jett Goldsberry launched a ball down the sideline and into the hands of Tyler Ruxer. A 46-yard touchdown that produced a shift in momentum as the Patriots received the ball to start the third quarter.

“Me and Jett worked a lot in the offseason,” said Ruxer. “When they call our number, he has to throw it up and make a play. That’s what it’s about. Making plays.”

Heritage Hills' Jett Goldsberry (3) carries the ball as the Heritage Hills Patriots play the Gibson Southern Titans in the IHSAA Class 3A semistate game in Lincoln City, Ind., Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

This game was more proof of why Heritage Hills (13-1) made the change it did in the offseason. It wanted the ball in Goldsberry’s hands with the option to find athletes in space. And the sophomore quarterback, whose lineage carries weight in program history, delivered.

A 9-yard rushing touchdown to put the Patriots on the board. The 45-yard bomb to Ruxer. Multiple first downs to chew time off the clock. Goldsberry only had 124 total yards but two long touchdown runs were called back on holding penalties. Quarterback, safety, punter, returner. He rarely comes off the field.

The sophomore now has 35 offensive touchdowns this fall.

“He’s just a competitor,” said Wilkerson. “A kid that has a huge heart and wants it so bad. One of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever worked with. We saw some talent we had coming. We had to get in a different offense to let them be successful.”

It was almost all for naught. Despite trailing 23-0 early in the third quarter, the Titans (11-3) got within an onside kick of potentially tying the game. That’s the danger of playing them. You can lose in the blink of an eye.

This victory was a mirror opposite of what occurred in September. Gibson Southern went up 28-7 before Goldsberry brought Heritage Hills within a field goal in the final minute. But in the final quarter on Friday, the Patriots went to their bread and butter.

A lengthy drive that featured zero passes took nine minutes off the clock. It didn’t result in points but kept the Titans’ offense off the field. Once the onside kick was recovered, Heritage Hills returned to the wishbone to seal the victory.

“It was just an overall team effort,” said Goldsberry. “We can run and throw. It’s worked pretty well all year. After that first loss to Gibson Southern, we looked down at what we did wrong and fixed it. Proud of what we did in the offseason to get ready for it.”

The Heritage Hills Patriots celebrate their victory over the Gibson Southern Titans in the IHSAA Class 3A semistate game in Lincoln City, Ind., Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

Braydon Durham, who was limited in the first meeting with an injury, had 125 yards rushing and one touchdown. The Patriots ran up 233 yards against a Titan defensive line that ranks among the best in the area.

The scene following the game, one filled with blue and red invading the field, was familiar yet still a long path taken. Following a trip to the state championship in 2019, the Patriots suffered through their first losing campaign in seven years. They believed the pieces were in place a year ago but lost in the sectional championship.

It earned the right to play for a state championship with a quintessential Heritage Hills performance. One highlighted by grit and effort from start to finish. This group delivered, no matter the result next week – the Patriots face will No. 1 Bishop Chatard (14-0) in a rematch from four years ago.

“The last time we were up there I told my mom, ‘We’ll be back at Lucas Oil,’” said Ruxer. “It’s crazy.”

“Just an outstanding night,” added Wilkerson. “I feel a lot better about going back and understanding what we need to do.”

Follow Courier & Press sports reporter Kyle Sokeland on Twitter @kylesokeland.