A 'perfect storm' brought Heritage Academy its new sports streaming network. Meet the students ...

Nick Hairston stood on top of the press box and waited for the rain.

It was Oct. 8 in Meridian, and Hurricane Delta threatened to make its presence known. Assigned to film Heritage Academy's football game that night at Lamar School, Hairston arrived at Grey Cobb Field to find there was no room for cameramen in the Raiders' interior press box.

So the Heritage Academy senior, joined by junior Destinee Flowers, climbed the stairs to the roof. Using the skills he learned through a part-time job at Military Hardware, Hairston covered the duo's Panasonic video camera with a raincoat and rigged a folding chair and a trash bag to keep their HP Windows 10 laptop dry.

Flowers operated the camera expertly, Hairston got the live stream online, and the broadcast went off without a hitch. The fated storm didn't even start until after the game -- once Hairston, Flowers and the rest of the Patriots had boarded their bus bound for Columbus.

"It was so funny because we worked so hard to build the fort, and it didn't rain," Hairston said.

Of course, what Hairston called a "perfect storm" had long since happened.

His filming experience, freshman Lathan Dunbar-Keys' streaming background and a need presented by the coronavirus pandemic came together in a natural confluence. Hairston and Dunbar-Keys launched the Heritage Sports Network, a live streaming and broadcasting service, in September.

"I think due to COVID, a lot of people are now realizing that this is really something that high schools can do -- even schools like us," Hairston said.

With Heritage Academy's support, the nascent network has grown plenty since its inception a few months ago. It has spawned over 300 YouTube subscribers and launched a film club more than a dozen students strong -- and it's still on its way up.

"We're just glad the school allowed us to have this opportunity, and hopefully it keeps going further and further," Dunbar-Keys said.

Trial and error

Heritage Academy had made forays into a live-streaming system before Hairston and Dunbar-Keys launched their network over the summer.

When football coach and athletic director Sean Harrison arrived in April 2016, the school was using WiFi Sports Network to broadcast games. The service allowed the school to sell advertisements, but because of low viewership ratings, not many ads were sold. Ultimately, Heritage Academy canceled its subscription.

In spring 2020, WiFi Sports Network and the East Coast Sox baseball organization created the Patriot Sports Network in order to broadcast Heritage Academy baseball games. But when the season was paused because of COVID-19 in March and head coach Justin Flake left for Choctaw County in April, the network was suspended. (It will return to broadcast baseball games this spring only, giving the Heritage Sports Network a bit of a breather.)

During the pandemic-induced hiatus, Hairston began to consider starting a sports broadcasting system for the school, something he'd wanted for a while. But one major component was missing.

"I always thought that it'd be so cool to have a live streaming service, but really, my problem was I didn't have the equipment nor the know-how to do it," Hairston said.

That's where Dunbar-Keys came in, bringing his experience from streaming Xbox One games like NBA 2K and Star Wars: Battlefront on Mixer and Twitch using a software called Streamlabs OBS. Over the summer -- once they were assured the school would be open and sports would be played again -- the two students worked to set up their new network

There were bumps in the road, of course. In the first game streamed on the "Heritage Sports Network Live" YouTube page -- the Patriots' Sept. 4 home football game against Magnolia Heights -- Hairston and Dunbar-Keys realized they were missing a piece of equipment called a capture card in order to stream their camera footage. Instead, they provided a live scoreboard and crawl line on YouTube as Dunbar-Keys used his phone to stream the game via Facebook Live on Heritage Academy's page.

"Really, a lot of this was just trial and error -- you know, a few teenagers saying, 'Hey, let's see if we can do this,'" Hairston said. "We tried and tried and tried, and finally we got it off the ground, and now it seems to be blossoming and really going well."

'A job that you love'

Of course, running the network is not all up to Hairston and Dunbar-Keys.

The two have other responsibilities, after all. Dunbar-Keys plays for the Patriots' junior varsity basketball team; Hairston runs cross country and track in addition to his part-time job.

Enter the HSN Film Club, a school-sponsored club overseen by Harrison but led by the network's two co-creators. Meeting every other Tuesday since late September, Hairston and Dunbar-Keys show the dozen or so students involved -- including Flowers, senior Anthony Lovegren and sophomore Casey Johnson -- how to operate the camera and other equipment. Club members take turns attending each game so everyone can have a break.

"We allow our club members to experience what we do, and that way it can help progress the future for the sports network," Dunbar-Keys said.

That includes filming, live streaming games, commentating and creating pregame graphics with game information and postgame score graphics. Social media is a big part of things, too; one Instagram post promoting basketball games against Tuscaloosa Academy drew almost 50 comments from Knights fans promoting their teams.

To its creators, the network is mainly a way for those who can't attend games because of the pandemic to be able to enjoy a similar experience.

Computer teacher Cindy Cline said she doesn't feel comfortable going into the gym for games because of her age. Instead, she watches the network's YouTube streams and is the most active member of the page's live chat, supporting her teams and calling them out when she feels it's necessary. Being caught up with the games, Cline said, allows her to know what's going on when she sees players in class the next day.

"It has truly been a blessing to my life to watch them and be a part of the game, because I wouldn't otherwise be able to without this sports network," Cline said.

Dunbar-Keys feels the benefits another way. His grandfather, who typically came to every game to watch him play, is currently taking care of Dunbar-Keys' grandmother, who has cancer. With the live stream, she can watch, too.

"I think that was an amazing opportunity that she gets to watch it from her comfort level at home," Dunbar-Keys said.

Capturing seventh-grade, junior varsity and varsity contests means the network streams as many as five games in one day during basketball season. While Dunbar-Keys admits the work can be "nonstop," it's more than worth it for him, Hairston and the other students involved.

"Sometimes it feels like a job -- but a job that you love," Hairston said.

Something bigger

As soon as Hairston began to comprehend what it would take to get the network off the ground, he realized he had to think about something else, too.

"The second that I learned and understood everything, I began to look for people who could possibly take my place," he said.

After all, there are just a few months left until Hairston graduates. He plans to attend Samford University in Birmingham, where he wants to study journalism -- in part because of the enjoyment of creating and running the network.

"It's just so much fun to be a part of something bigger," Hairston said.

So far, he and Dunbar-Keys are getting acclaim that, too, is bigger than they ever expected. Dunbar-Keys said Mississippi Valley State asked the network to film next year's Delta Duels high school basketball tournament; the Mississippi State baseball team's Instagram account reposted the network's coverage of Patriots senior Aaron Downs signing his letter of intent to play for the Bulldogs.

"I didn't ever think people are going to give us that much credit for what we're doing because we're both teenagers just doing a normal thing, but I think that's amazing that people really love what we're doing," Dunbar-Keys said.

The duo hopes to take things to the next level, even after Hairston graduates. Both said they hope the club will increase in size and that the team will get better equipment, including new microphones. The network's basketball commentator, sophomore Sid Stegall, is currently using the microphone on his iPhone headphones to broadcast games.

"There's always something new that we need," Hairston said.

Still, both students feel the future of the club and the network are in good hands. While Dunbar-Keys has three more years of high school and Johnson has two, just watching the progress of newer members -- like "instant hit" Dorsey Burris, the club's only seventh-grader -- is encouraging.

But while Dunbar-Keys and Hairston are always looking to the future, they took time to reflect on their accomplishments, too.

"We may be a small town, but we have big opportunities where we are," Dunbar-Keys said.

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