July 14, 2014

Southeastern 7-on-7: Cats lead local charge with runner-up finish

Dalton High School’s football team — known for its running game and physical defense — seems pretty good now at that “basketball on grass” stuff.

Catamounts coach Matt Land won’t say he likes seven-on-seven football — the common title of his often-used nickname — but he sure did like the way Dalton played this weekend.

Dalton finished runner-up in the Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship, hosted by The Daily Citizen and AstroTurf, and earned the best finish ever of any local team in the tournament’s four-year history. Dalton lost 18-10 in the finals Sunday at Lakeshore Park to Colquitt County, the defending champion.

Dalton finished Saturday’s pool play with a 5-1-1 record in Pool A, which the Catamounts won ahead of Colquitt County via the “fewer points allowed” tiebreaker. After losing 32-20 to Cartersville in the opening round of the double-elimination championship bracket, Dalton reeled off six wins to reach the finals. Dalton started with a 35-3 win against Atlanta’s Pace Academy, followed with a 29-20 win against Newton and then beat Male (Louisville, Ky.) 19-16.

Dalton followed with a 24-17 win against Cartersville on quarterback Payton Veraldi’s tiebreaking touchdown to Tyler Britton in the final minute. Dalton won 30-27 against Scotlandville (Baton Rouge, La.) in the next round and 33-22 against Sacred Heart-Griffin (Springfield, Ill.) in the loser-finishes-third game, where the winner advanced to the title matchup.

“Hopefully, it proves to everyone and our players we can be a successful passing team and a successful running team,” said Veraldi, a rising senior. “... I feel like we’ve improved that part of our game tremendously.”

Veraldi was named the Pool A Most Valuable Player. The returning starter looked comfortable leading Dalton’s offense and engineered numerous late-game drives.

“I think experience is No. 1,” Land said of Veraldi’s improvement. “Experience goes a long way. He’s had a tremendous amount of exposure. ... I think the biggest thing is Payton is clearly one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached.”

Dalton finished 8-3 last season and won the Region 7-4A championship. It’s unlikely Dalton shifts its offensive philosophy to a pass-happy spread attack anytime soon, but a reliable passing game never hurts.

“We’re a team that has worked hard the last four years and we adapt to what is given us,” Land said. “In this, it’s passing. We don’t ever want to be known as a certain style team aside from being physical. I’m proud we’ve evolved into a team that has a passing option.”

Another hometown team also had a lengthy and successful day as Christian Heritage’s Lions, slotted in the consolation bracket after finishing in the bottom half of Pool C, lost 20-11 in the first round against North Florida Christian of Tallahassee, Fla. Christian Heritage then eliminated Coahulla Creek by a 38-0 result, won 37-23 against Brookwood-Thomasville, defeated Jefferson Davis (Montgomery, Ala.) 24-14 and bested North Florida Christian in a rematch, 25-16. Christian Heritage reached the title game with a 20-11 win against Maplesville (Ala.) and needed last-second heroics to defeat Chattanooga’s Baylor 21-19.

Trailing 19-9, Christian Heritage’s defense forced a turnover on downs — defensive stops are worth two points and interceptions are worth three — and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game with a minute left. The Lions’ defense then made another fourth-down stop, this one on the last play and breaking the tie.

“We just executed,” said Lions sophomore running back Ahmaad Tanner, the Consolation Bracket MVP. “When we execute, we’re a lot better.”

Christian Heritage finished 2-5 in pool play but 6-1 in the bracket competition.

“We’re sophomore-based on offense,” Lions coach Preston Poag said. “We had to challenge them and dig deep. They stepped up.”

The “A” teams from Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield were in the championship bracket. Northwest lost 31-27 to Colquitt County in the opening round, won 18-16 over Lexington (Ky.) Catholic and lost 27-12 against Male (Louisville, Ky.). Southeast lost to Sacred Heart in the opening round and was eliminated 19-10 by Charles Henderson (Troy, Ala.).

Coahulla Creek, and the “B” teams from Northwest and Southeast were in the consolation bracket. Coahulla Creek won 21-20 against Northwest and lost 28-10 against Lithonia’s MLK Jr. before being eliminated by Christian Heritage. Northwest’s other loss was 23-22 against Childersburg (Ala.), while Southeast lost to Jefferson Davis and then lost 14-10 against East Hall.

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