Former Dragon Shawn Piper took what he learned at DeRidder High School and at Louisiana Tech and is now coaching an elite 7-on-7 team that travels around the country.

Piper is the head coach of the EPS Blaze with some of the best skill players stretching from Houston to Kentwood, Louisiana.

"The competition level is very, very high," Piper said. "You have kids from across the country. There are kids from Florida to Hawaii to Arizona to Washington that are 5-star or 4-star kids that you don't see every day playing high school ball. Down in New Orleans, you 4-and 5-star kids. They have the No. 1 DB in the country, and we've played against him twice. There are sports writers there from all across the country, and it's big.

"I've seen guys get exposure on our teams and other teams. There is media there from Rivals.com, ESPN, 24/7 Sports, so all these media guys are out there getting them exposure.

Piper is currently coaching at Lake Charles College Prep, but spends the offseason helping players work on their craft and get college exposure.

"The thing I've realized is that the kids that play in the 7-on-7 circuit play at a much faster pace," Piper said. "When they get back to high school games, it slows down for them. I feel like if you're a kid out there playing 7-on-7, the competition will help you. We have top notch guys that play here every day. When you go back to your high school, it will slow the game down for you."

Recently, the Blaze took first place in a tournament in Mississippi, placed third at a tournament in Miami and finished sixth in its first tournament of the year in New Orleans.

The team has 31 players on the roster, including Delta Charter's Freddie Mango, Jr., who is from DeRidder and has family still in the area, and Vinton's Tony St. Julien, who received national exposure and college scholarship offers while playing for the EPS Blaze.

"He was coming into his junior year and wasn't really heard of," Piper said of St. Julien. "Now, coming into his senior year, he's making a lot of noise."

Piper graduated from DeRidder in 1999 before going to play at Louisiana Tech for four years. Following his time at Tech, he played in arena leagues and on semi pro teams for seven years, but he always wanted to coach.

EPS Blaze started in 2016 and has been making an impact on the national level.

"They sky is the limit," Piper said. "The first year was a learning curve and we ended up place top four in nationals in our first two years. This year, we have a lot of talent. We have one of the top linebackers in the state of Texas and the top quarterback (TJ Finley) in the state of Louisiana right now."

7-on-7 shares some of the same rules as traditional 11-man football, but without the linemen and pads.

"You can still press off the line, but you can't do it like you usually do because we don't have pads," he said. "The rules are still traditional high school rules. You still have your offsides and holding calls."

Although the 7-on-7 circuit takes up time in the summer and spring, Piper and the staff want the players to be able to compete in other sports.

"We start in the spring, because we don't want to get into whether or not they are in a high school season," Piper said. "We end in the national championship in June every year. We always stop from July to the beginning of next year and start back up.

"If they have a track meet or something like that, we understand. That's why we have a roster of 31 guys just incase someone can't make it. We don't want to take away from any other sports."

Piper and the EPS Blaze are looking for donations and sponsorship to aid in food and lodging for the players to potentially make better lives for them through athletics.

"Coming from DeRidder, I've seen a lot of kids get overlooked," Piper said. "Growing up, being raised by my grandparents, it showed me a lot. It makes me not take anything for granted. I look back where I come from, a small town, and not being seen like someone from New Orleans or Baton Rouge. I just take it on myself to give these kids the exposure they deserve, so they can get out of their situation into a better situation."