Two local teams got their first cracks at Georgia High School Association varsity-level competition this weekend, and it was apparent there would be a learning curve for both schools.
Coahulla Creek, which played a junior varsity schedule when the school opened last year, and Christian Heritage, which recently joined the GHSA after years on the gridiron in the Glory For Christ Football League, both finished in the bottom half of their pools on Saturday and competed in the consolation bracket on Sunday.
The two squads combined for four wins on the weekend and both teams’ coaches spoke highly of the experience.
Christian Heritage beat Coahulla Creek 28-0 in the first round, but then fell 29-13 to the “B” team for Bob Jones (Madison, Ala.) and 28-7 to Southeast Whitfield to end its tournament. Coahulla Creek’s Colts lost 21-0 to Chattanooga’s McCallie in an elimination matchup.
But Coahulla Creek’s actual first game was something to hang a hat on. The Colts and Callaway tied in a scoreless battle during Saturday’s pool play.
“Our defense played well,” Colts coach Jared Hamlin said. “We did some good things on offense. I would’ve liked to get in the end zone. Callaway’s got some good athletes.”
In Coahulla Creek’s second game, it lost 22-3 to Northwest Whitfield. The Colts did beat LaFayette 25-22 later in the night and almost pulled out an upset against Riverdale.
“I think people got a little antsy,” Colts junior quarterback Hunter Williams said of the loss to the Bruins. “It’s Northwest. It’s the school we all came from.”
While Christian Heritage is small compared to the Daltons, Griffins and Ringgolds in the tournament, it finished pool play 2-5 while losing to Ringgold 22-21.
One of the biggest differences Lions coach Preston Poag saw from last season to this weekend was the speed.
“Learning-wise, the biggest thing for me in this is learning how to play fast,” he said. “These teams are fast, probably a lot faster than any team we will play.
“In North Georgia you’re not going to find that much speed, and that’s good because I wanted to play the best teams (this weekend). I think it is a big start for us. This is just another step to get ready for practice and then head into the season.”
• IMPRESSIVE COMBINES: Christian Heritage and Southeast didn’t have the most successful Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship this weekend, and Murray County didn’t even participate.
But those three schools, along with Dalton, still had solid representation at the top of the weekend-long skills combine.
Christian Heritage’s Jake Stokes, Devin Sanders and Will Fischer, Dalton’s Austin Mills, Murray County’s Austin Gossett and Southeast’s Brian Pearce all finished in the top three in three of the four combine drills.
Elite Athletic Events put on the two-day combine, which took place at the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department’s Broaddus-Durkan Soccer Complex. Kevin Fitzgerald, the owner of Elite Athletic Events, which oversaw the combine, said around 60 players participated.
Stokes had the fastest 40-yard dash time at 4.64 seconds. Mills was second in the drill (4.81) and Sanders was third (4.91).
In the L-drill, Calhoun’s Hayden Crabtree was first (7.04), Gossett was second (7.3) and Pearce was third (7.47).
Stokes also had the fastest time in the pro agility drill (4.2), while Sanders was second (4.3) and Fischer was third (4.5).
Stokes was tops in the vertical jump as well at 34 inches. Teammate Austin Lowe was second (33.5), followed by Gossett (33).
• FEET TO THE FIRE: First-year Southeast coach Sean Gray said one of the biggest things he got out of the tournament was the opportunity to have his kids react against opposition wearing a different colored jersey. After going through spring practice with the team after his hire and offseason conditioning drills and weightlifting, the tournament was one of his first looks at seeing his team in competition with others.
He liked what he saw.
“Our kids battled all weekend long, and I loved that,” Gray said. “They didn’t back down at all, and I am just proud of what I have seen.”
The Raiders opened Sunday’s play with a 22-6 loss to Dalton, but they rebounded to win three games in a row before seeing their run ended with a 13-0 loss to Northwest.
“We got what we wanted out of this competition,” said Gray, who took over the program after previously serving as the head coach at Valley Point Middle. “We saw the fire and saw how some of the kids are going to react, and it was a great experience.”
• LEAPS AND BOUNDS: During pool play on Saturday, Northwest Whitfield went 3-4 during a day that was overshadowed by a shaky passing game as interceptions were a thorn in the side. But on the second day, Robinson was pleased with the progress of senior quarterback Silas Ledford, who was facing his first major competition since recovering from knee surgery this past year.
“Silas was 100 miles ahead of where he was on Saturday,” Robinson said. “It was like a sophomore one day turning into a senior the next. For him, the biggest challenge is the eight inches between his ears and not the 100 yards up and down a field.”
• TIGER TRIP: One of the top recruits, Fletcher (Neptune Beach, Fla.) running back Jamari Smith, was not at the tournament. However, he probably has a good reason.
“He’s at Auburn today,” Fletcher coach Josh Corey said Saturday before his team’s Pool C game with Florence. “He’s visiting Auburn.”
Interestingly, one of the other top recruits scheduled to play in the tournament, Auburn High middle linebacker Reuben Foster, made waves Thursday when he flipped his verbal commitment from the University of Alabama to Auburn. He also did not play at the tournament due to a hamstring injury, said Auburn High coach Tim Carter.
• REGULATION OR BUST: While Sunday’s championship bracket games had two games go to overtime, all games on Saturday ending deadlocked after the 25 minutes of clock ran out stayed that way.
Callaway learned that all too well.
Of the four games ending in ties, the Cavaliers took part in three. In addition to drawing against the Colts, Callaway tied Martin Luther King Jr. “B” 14-14 and Riverdale (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) 19-19 and finished 2-2-3 for sixth place in Pool A.
“It was a competitive day,” Callaway coach Pete Wiggins said. “We just came out on the short end when it came to wins.”
• WHEELS ON THE BUS: Two teams — Fletcher and Harding Academy (Searcy, Ark.) — made comparatively long trips among the schools in the tournament, riding a combined 900 miles from their hometowns.
Those long hours spent in a bus, or car, can wear on players, said Jake Mackey, a junior wide receiver for Harding.
“It’s definitely different than say living in Dalton and going,” he said.
However, Fletcher had four road games in last year’s state playoffs, so the group is used to head coach Josh Corey’s plan of keeping the kids busy with “no down time.” Senior quarterback Evan Orth was part of the 2011 team that spent much of the postseason traveling, and he can vouch for the plan working.
“We don’t have any free time to goof around,” he said. “Coach likes to do things to take our mind off the game and keep us from getting nervous.”
Mackey prefers a snooze or two.
“Sleep is good on a bus,” he said. “Just to be on a bus with all the teammates and all my best friends is an uplifting experience.”
— Compiled by Daily Citizen sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield.