By David Knox, Sports Editor
HOOVER – It’s a lot of fun for a football program when you’ve gone 29-1 over the past two seasons.
How much fun is it for a bunch of youngsters playing in 90-degree heat after you’ve gone 0-6 in a 7on7 national tournament?
That’s when you grow up from cubs to Cougars.
Clay-Chalkville rebounded from a woeful start in pool play to finish in the top 16 of the USA Football 7on7 National Championship July 14-16.
“I’m proud of them,” said coach Jerry Hood. “They turned it around.”
The relative youth of this new group of Cougars could have derailed the weekend. Only seven seniors were on the 7on7 roster, and possibly only a few of them played. Thank goodness one of them was Nico Collins. The five-star recruit was unstoppable. But it was the more consistent quarterback play from sophomore-to-be Willie Miller that turned things around. In a game where an interception is three points for the defense, early mistakes by he and backup quarterback Tyrese Sewell had a snowball effect. Miller pulled it together in bracket play for the Cougars’ strong finish.
Coming off their own 7on7 tournament just one day before, pool play was not pretty. The Cougars lost to Central of Phenix City 27-16 and Wheaton Warrenville South of Illinois 27-16 on Thursday. Friday afternoon, they dropped contests to Albertville 24-16, Glendale, Mo., 28-13, Warren Central of Indianapolis 23-10 and Florence 33-12.
They were seeded 46th of the 48 teams after pool play.
But they rallied against 19th-seeded Opelika for a 19-17 win. The Cougars broke out on top on a Miller-to-Collins TD pass and a two-point conversion. Miller tossed another TD pass, but Opelika rallied to cut the score to 19-17 with 33 seconds left after a TD. The Cougars foiled the two-point try and Miller hooked up with Collins for a crucial first down to seal the win.
The Cougars then knocked off Wenonah, the 14th seed, 30-19. Leading 23-19, Miller converted a big third-down pass to Collins, and the Cougars added a TD with 25 seconds left for the final margin.
That sent Clay into the winners bracket for Saturday play, where they ran into eventual champ McGill-Toolen. The Cougars broke out early 8-7, but a costly interception and quick touchdown gave McGill a 16-8 lead.
Miller and Collins responded with a TD to trail 16-14, but McGill again struck quickly for a 22-14 lead with three minutes left. The Cougars had one last chance to tie it, but a drive ended in the final seconds, giving McGill two more points for the 24-14 final.
The elimination game against Enterprise was a similar game. Clay led 13-6 halfway through, but Enterprise converted a third down for a touchdown and a 21-13 lead with three to play.
Still with a chance to tie, the Cougars’ drive ended with an interception with a minute left and the Cougars went home with a 24-13 loss.
“I think we showed a tough mentality that we are going to fight no matter what,” Hood said. “I think we learned a lot and got better.”
Collins was named to the all-tournament first team.