Culture change: Senior lineman proving to be a key part of Lions' turnaround

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Editor's note: This story is featured in the Daily Citizen-News' weekly high school football Touchdown! section. Grab an issue in papers on Fridays during football season, or stop by our office for a copy.

Mitchell Herndon admits his freshman season on the Christian Heritage School football team was trying.

"My freshman year it was just miserable," Herndon said. "Coach (Preston Poag) left, got a new coach (Jay Poag), a bunch of people left, star players left. Sophomore year we won a couple of games but still it wasn't where we wanted to be. After sophomore year, we got together and said let's get after it."

Christian Heritage had records of 1-9 in 2016 and 2-8 in 2017. After Herndon's sophomore season in 2017, he and his teammates rededicated themselves to the program. That included holding each other accountable on the field, in practice and in the weight room.

"Now, we treat it like a job," said Herndon, a senior offensive and defensive lineman. "If you're not in the weight room you get in trouble. My freshman year if you weren't in the weight room, it was like whatever. This summer, I've never seen it like that. It was packed every day."

The hard work paid off, as the Lions finished the 2018 with a 7-4 record and a playoff berth. The Lions have jumped out to a 4-0 start and hold the No. 5 ranking in the Georgia High School Association Class A Private Power Ratings.

Tonight, Christian Heritage faces a fellow undefeated team when they take on Darlington (5-0), which holds the No. 4 spot in the Power Ratings.

Christian Heritage coach Jay Poag said Herndon has played a key role in the program's turnaround. Herndon is one of the 10 players in the first class Poag has coached at Christian Heritage for their entire high school career.

"He's somebody that we look to, just a constant," Poag said. "That's probably a good word for him. He's a constant. We put him out there on offense and defense and don't worry about him. We know he's going to play good."

Herndon played linebacker much of his career at Christian Heritage, but a shoulder injury and team needs led coaches to put Herndon on the lines. As a two-way player Herndon rarely leaves the field and has "taken on an unselfish role this season," Poag said.

"He's got a ton of experience," Poag said. "He's been playing since he was a ninth-grader. He's a good player. He's strong, he runs well. He loves to hit people. We've asked him to take on a different role this year. We've had him back there at linebacker the last couple of years in the middle. He's one of our bigger kids, our stronger kids, so we need his beef up front a little more."

Four games into the season, Herndon is enjoying the ride.

"I thought the other day, 'We're 4-0,' and I'm sitting here thinking this is not a big deal," said Herndon, who as a triplet has two sisters who also attend Christian Heritage. "We won one game my freshman year and I thought that was huge. We're 4-0 and it's just like on to the next one. It's gone by fast but it's definitely a new thing that we're winning football games."

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