DALTON, Ga. — Can summer camp success carry over to the regular season? Christian Heritage School football coach Jay Poag certainly hopes so.
Poag has been around long enough to know that 7-on-7 competitions offer very little correlation to what happens when the pads come on. Still, after competing and having success in four elite 7-on-7 camps in June against much larger schools, Poag believes the 2021 Lions, who are breaking in a new set of receivers to work with returning quarterback Christian Thomas, have taken a step forward.
"June's been good for us," said Poag, whose Class A private school team won the first GHSA region championship in program history last season, his fifth leading the Lions. "We had four really good 7-on-7 tournaments, and they played really well. The moment wasn't too big for them. We're trying to develop good chemistry between Christian and the new receivers, and we did that.
"Look, I know it's not really football, but it does develop that chemistry. The new receivers learned they better run their routes full speed and they better be in the right spot because the ball can go in one of five different places. In the end, they were all making plays."
The Lions began their camp tour June 11 at the University of Georgia, where they went 3-3 as Thomas and his receivers started to jell. The next day it was off to the Corky Kell Classic in Roswell, with 45 of the best programs in the state in attendance at the Atlanta-area event.
It didn't take long for the smallest school there to get noticed.
"It was the best of the best in the state there, a who's who of top prospects and teams, and we got hot and started winning and kept winning," said Poag, whose team was put in the same pool as state powers Rabun County (with future UGA quarterback Gunner Stockton), Pace Academy and King's Ridge. "It was a magical day for us."
The Lions reached the event's elite eight round, where they matched up with Class AAAAAAA power Peachtree Ridge, a team they had already defeated. Christian Heritage took a big lead just as a storm moved in, forcing competition to be halted.
"That was the one disappointing thing," Poag said. "We were going to get into the final four, and who knows what might happen. Still, the new guys really turned a corner there."
The Lions were back at it the following Monday at Georgia Tech, where Poag found out even more about his players.
"We played so many games, and I was worried if they were going to be able to show up," said Poag, whose decades of coaching experience include time at the collegiate level. "But we just kept winning. We were 6-0 at one point and then ran into Rabun County and Gunner Stockton again, and they beat us in the championship round. That guy is as good as you'll see."
The final stop was the next weekend at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where the Lions started out 3-0, beating a South Carolina Class 5A team and another big school from Alabama before fatigue finally set in and they lost their last two matchups.
"We were pretty much shot at that point," Poag said with a laugh. "We accomplished more than I thought we could, but we wanted to jump on a bunch of these camps to accelerate the process, and it worked."
The work has Thomas, who is 20-3 and has nearly 4,500 yards of total offense in two years as a starter, thinking big things for 2021 after last season included nine wins — tied with the 2019 Lions for most in a single year at Christian Heritage — but ended with a loss in the second round of the playoffs. Christian Heritage returns 1,000-yard rusher Solomon Locke, who is also an excellent receiver, to go with new wideouts Braden Koneman, Pierce Proctor and Isaac Watson.
"We run a college-type passing offense with a lot of formations and routes that we can go to, and these 7-on-7 tourneys give us a chance to have a lot of reps so that we can get used to working together," Thomas said. "I thought we improved each time we went out there.
"We still have a long way to go, but you could just feel our confidence growing in each event. I think we're set for another big season. We know that Solomon will get a lot of attention, so these receivers will get their chances to have a ton of big plays. We want to win another region championship and get further in the playoffs."
If so, the genesis of that run was likely set in motion over those eight days in June.