DALTON, Ga. - Chattanooga-area teams almost were shut out of the championship round of the Southeastern 7 on 7 Championship football tournament following pool play Friday.
Fort Payne will join another Alabama team, Bob Jones, in the championship round today at Harmon Field, along with Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. High School and Pearl (Miss.) High. Dalton, which lost to Pearl in pool play after failing to score on its last possession despite three plays inside the 5-yard line, and South Pittsburg, which lost a close one to Bob Jones, nearly made the final field.
Of the 20 teams that competed at three Dalton sites Friday, M.L. King was the most impressive.
"We never stopped them," said Sonoraville coach Roger Gentry, whose team played M.L. King after the Lions had beat Baylor in their first matchup. "They have athletes everywhere and are comfortable playing this type of football."
Fort Payne will play Bob Jones and M.L. King will go against Pearl this morning in the semifinals, with the winners to meet at 1 p.m.
Fort Payne, which went three games into the Alabama playoffs last year, graduated a number of quality starters including quarterback Kyle Crabtree, who had 2,500 passing yards in 2010 before signing with North Alabama; running back/receiver Akeem Appleton; and linebackers Seth Dodd and Dallas Poe.
During the Wildcats' 10-0 regular season, there were several occasions when second- and third-teamers logged playing time.
"Last year afforded us an opportunity to play a lot of kids, which allowed us to develop more depth," coach Phil Ellis said. "We'll play 22 kids this year and most of our special teams will be different players. The punt team will be [a group] unto itself, and it will basically be the same thing with the field-goal/PAT team."
The Wildcats have 28 seniors and 28 juniors on a squad that may number close to 100 when the season begins.
"It makes a difference having 17- and 18-year-olds out there as opposed to 15- and 16-year-olds," Ellis said.
Baylor's Red Raiders weren't particularly happy with their showing against MLK.
The Red Raiders fell 32-22 despite a touchdown reception from Heath Belcher, who entered the day as the team's No. 3 tight end. Belcher also made a diving catch to convert a two-point PAT when a Matthew Oellerich pass was tipped by another receiver. Oellerich had three TDs passes but also two interceptions, one of which was deflected by the intended receiver to a defender.
The Raiders aren't likely to line up often in five-wide formations, but coach Phil Massey liked his receivers getting used to getting off the line.
"They have to learn that they can't get beat at the line of scrimmage. We have to beat press coverage on offense and press cover successfully on defense," he said.
They were going against a quality quarterback in Jonquel Dawson. The senior passed for more than 3,000 yards and 40 TDs last season.
Friday's upper-90-degree heat sapped more than one team, including Ringgold's Tigers, who have been on the run since late-April's tornado left their fields and fieldhouse unusable. Robert Akins' team has been working out at Northwest Whitfield, and Friday's camp was their third in a week.
"I think I've worn the kids out," Akins said. "We've played in 40 passing-league games this summer, so I think the kids are tired. We competed at UTC last weekend, then Ooltewah the other night and now today. I've put a lot of stress on them, so we're going to give them some time to rest before camp opens.
"Sometimes as coaches we tend to make poor decisions and push them too hard. My mentality is that I'm from the old school and you have to outwork everybody, and sometimes when you don't have a whole lot of depth you tend to wear them out."
The fieldhouse and practice field are scheduled to be usable by mid-August, according to Akins.
"The fieldhouse is coming great," he said. "They put the roof and back wall up, and they were closing up the gables today. Hopefully they will let us get on the field by then as well. At least we can get some type of normalcy there."
Bill Napier spent 24 years coaching against Dalton, so when the former Murray County head coach was hired this winter to become the Catamounts' offensive coordinator, it required some adjusting.
"I still find myself saying 'They' instead of 'We,'" he said, laughing. "I was on that [opposing] sideline for a long time, so to be on this side now is different. The people here have been great, though, but I don't think the Murray people are too happy."
Dalton head coach Matt Land said his new hire is proving quite costly.
"He's killing my coaches-clothing budget," Land joked. "Everywhere he's coached he's worn green, so we're having to replace all his clothes."
In addition to breaking in new coaches, Northwest Whitfield and Sonoraville played Friday at less than full strength. Eight of Gentry's Phoenix players were competing in an AAU basketball tournament, while among the missing Bruins for new coach Josh Robinson was quarterback Colter Creswell, who injured his knee recently.
"We're using Tevin McDaniel and Matt Allen right now and they're doing a good job, but we expect Colter to be back for camp," Robinson said. "The competition is open, but we are going to be more of a running team, so when Colter gets back, he's going to have the edge since that's his strength."
Chattanooga Christian coach Barry Loyal had no sympathy for any other team. He and the Chargers played without not only standout senior receiver Beau Simmons but also quarterback Levi Corbett. Simmons was at work and Corbett was at a Christian youth camp in Iowa, where his father serves as a counselor.
Loyal was quite happy with the work of receivers Joseph Miller and Brandon Arnold.
"When everybody is there we have most of our skill people back, and that fourth receiver spot, we had guys play it today that rotated in and out of our fifth spot [last year]," Loyal said.
Rookie quarterback Jake Stone may not yet be the apple of South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider's eye, but the junior and projected starter is getting there.
"For a guy that missed the whole year (in 2010) and didn't go through spring practice, he has picked up quite a lot and played pretty well," Grider said. "I have felt all along we had guys who could catch it, and now we have somebody that's going to be able to throw it."
Stone tore an ACL in the second game of last season while playing in a mop-up role and missed spring practice to play baseball.
Grider said the Pirates are unlikely to have any five-wide formations this season but he liked the competition.
"We're seeing players as good as any we'll see all year. We're getting quality reps," he said. "Offensively we get to see people with as much or more speed than we have, and defensively we get challenged vertically."
The Pirates were 2-0 before losing to Bob Jones.
"We're almost like an 'old' football team. We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of downs," Grider said.