By Sports Staff
For the local high school football teams that competed in the Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship this past weekend in Whitfield County, the third installment of The Daily Citizen’s annual tournament was an unqualified success.
Despite a larger pool of competition at this year’s tournament — there were 40 teams, up from 32 a year ago and 20 in the inaugural event — four of the six schools from Murray or Whitfield counties that participated advanced from Saturday’s pool play to Sunday’s championship bracket. The top four finishers in each of the six seven-team pools advanced to the championship bracket, while the other three moved on to the consolation bracket.
This was the first year a local school had advanced to championship bracket play. Dalton finished as the consolation bracket champion in 2012 — only pool winners advanced to bracket play in 2011 — but this year the Catamounts, Christian Heritage, North Murray and Northwest Whitfield all played against the best competition the tournament had to offer during the second day.
And the number of local teams in the championship bracket might have been higher if Southeast Whitfield didn’t take a different approach to the tournament, electing to split its talent pool equally among its A and B squads.
Still, all of the local coaches were pleased with their team’s performances against top competition from a field that included schools from 10 states.
“We faced a very high level of competition against teams like Bowling Green (Ky.) and Cartersville and Fletcher (Neptune Beach, Fla.),” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. “We got a real good gauge of where we are at, and we are pleased with the way we competed with these teams. I am real pleased with where we are at.”
Northwest had the highest seed among local teams after pool play, entering the championship bracket as the No. 8 seed. The Bruins beat Jackson (Mo.) 37-21 and edged No. 1 seed Bowling Green 26-25 before falling to Cartersville 39-30 in the winners’ bracket semifinal. Northwest’s defensive backs were beaten on fade routes against Fletcher and the Bruins lost.
“Three times we got beat on the deep ball,” Robinson said. “But you live and you learn. That is what this is for. Now when we go over prevent coverages and the mistakes you can make, our players will be paying attention when we tell them to remember what happened in these losses.”
Bruins junior Caleb Shiflett will be starting at quarterback for the first time this season, but he looked more than ready to guide offensive coordinator David Crane’s system. This wasn’t the first seven-on-seven competition of the summer for Northwest, but Shiflett is still new to his role and so that only added to Robinson’s enthusiasm for the quarterback’s performance.
“Caleb Shiflett threw with a lot of confidence, and Tevin McDaniel and Andy Whisenant are proving to be go-to receivers,” Robinson said. “... We had a lot of success offensively this weekend because our receivers ran some really good routes. You can’t complain about where we are offensively, seeing as how this is probably the sixth day of competition like this for Caleb. It is nice to see him have a little rhythm between those skill players.”
Dalton went 3-2 on Sunday as the No. 15 seed, beating Lake Cormorant (Miss.) and second-seeded Jeffersonville (Ind.) before losing to eventual tournament champion Colquitt County. In the losers’ bracket, the Cats beat Scotlandville (Baton Rouge, La.) before their run ended — like Northwest, at the hands of the Fletcher Senators.
“We came into this with realistic expectations,” Dalton coach Matt Land said. “We wanted to see improvement game by game, and I think we saw that. The most valuable experience came from seeing who could step up and play to the level of this competition and help us. We found some of those guys and I am perfectly comfortable with those guys going forward.”
North Murray was the No. 16 seed, and the Mountaineers lost to Scotlandville and Jeffersonville. Christian Heritage had a two-and-done Sunday, falling to Fletcher and Atlanta’s Pace Academy.
Of the 14 teams competing in the consolation bracket, Southeast fielded two of them, with both reaching the final five. One reason it wasn’t the final four, three or even two is because the two Raiders teams faced each other in the loser-gets-fifth matchup.
Instead of having one team as a true A squad and the other as the lower-level B team, coach Sean Gray said he divided the teams fairly evenly. That was evident when the Southeast B team beat the A team. Instead of playing a full 22-minute game, they used overtime rules in which each side had one possession. Southeast B scored, while Southeast A didn’t.
Then the Southeast B team faced Victory Christian (Charlotte, N.C.) in the loser-gets-fourth matchup and won 9-8. The Raiders’ Damien Manning, a senior, intercepted a pass on the first Victory Christian possession, a play worth three points for the defense in seven-on-seven competition. A goal-line stand by Southeast’s defense preceded a Will Swantic-to-Chaz Payne touchdown pass for a 9-0 advantage, and Victory Christian scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion but never saw the ball again.
“It’s a huge encouragement,” Gray said.
In the next game, versus eventual consolation bracket champion Cedar Shoals, Southeast lost 30-19. Swantic, a sophomore, threw two touchdown passes to senior Abram Stanley and one to junior Corey Barnes.
However, the Raiders never led. Trailing 14-13, Southeast allowed Cedar Shoals to convert a fourth down and eventually score. Trailing 20-19, the same happened, except the conversion was a 35-yard touchdown pass.
“My biggest concern from that game was giving up the deep ball,” Gray said. “We gave up three deep balls. It’s tough to judge that type of speed without seeing it on a regular basis.”
Still, after the Southeast B team went 2-4 in Saturday’s pool play and Southeast’s A team went 1-4-1, winning a combined seven games on Sunday was a pleasant sight for Gray.
Southeast finished 2-8 last fall, Gray’s first season leading the program, but the Raiders showed signs of improvement down the stretch. They nearly upset Dalton in the second-to-last game of the season and in the season finale lost 19-17 to Cedartown, a team they fell to 47-27 earlier in the year.
“We had a great day (Sunday) and we will continue to improve going into this season,” Gray said. “We just need to keep on improving.”
Coahulla Creek played four games in the consolation bracket as well on Sunday. The Colts won a pair of games and lost a pair of games, beating Brainerd (from Chattanooga) 7-6 in the opening game of the morning. The Colts followed with a loss to the Southeast B team before a 25-13 win over Cherokee (N.C.). West (Knoxville, Tenn.) ended the tournament for the Colts.