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Arizona Showcase Camp

Local athletes brave heat to learn from college coaches

WEEKLY BLOG:  7/8/17

Last weekend, about 100 high school football players worked on their crafts, learned (or had reinforced) some skills, and compared their offseason grinds to those of their peers.

And it was all in front of several college coaches.

This was the third year of the Arizona Showcase Camp, presented by KDP Athletics.  It was a two-night (six total hour) camp held at Coronado High School in Scottsdale.  The camp was run by Chris "Chico" Martinez, the defensive coordinator at Coronado.  The acronym stands for Keep Dreams Possible.

"The focus of the camp is to help a lot of kids get exposure to smaller universities," Martinez said.  "A lot of athletes overlook smaller schools because they want to play D-I ball.  You can get the same type of experience winning championships at a Division II or III school."

A total of eight coaches were there representing six different colleges.  Adams State (Division II), located in Colorado, had Ross Brunelle working with the running backs and Colin Fuller with the defensive linemen.  Howard Payne (Division III) is in the center of Texas and Matt Moore, new to the HPU staff, coached the linebackers.  Missouri Valley (NAIA) and Montana State-Northern (NAIA) had assistant coaches that have Valley roots represent them.  Missouri Valley had Kellis grad Francisco Rangel helping the safeties and his counterpart, Anvil Sinsabaugh of MSU-Northern (a Skyline alum) coached the wide receivers.  The two smaller Arizona schools were present with Aaron Bentley from Arizona Christian in the trenches with the offensive linemen and Brandon Payne, part of Ottawa's new staff, working with the cornerbacks.  Finally, quarterback guru Mike Giovando (from Elev8 QB Academy) spent time with the signal callers.

I took in the second evening of the camp on Sunday (with a temperature of 106 at 5 p.m.).  It started with agility drill stations.  Everything was run on a tight, regimented schedule with players being told of the time remaining at each station.

Fortunately, one of the stations was a water break tent run by Martinez's wife, who made sure the two large Gatorade coolers were filled with ice cold water.

Then, the players were separated out into position groups with running backs working on their ability to change direction and speed rapidly along with catching passes thrown by coaches.  The offensive and defensive linemen were in one end zone working on their technique and footwork.  On the other half of the field, the 12 quarterbacks threw passes to wide receivers while linebackers, corners, and safeties lined up in man coverage for pass reps.

"I help them create separation at the wide receiver position," Sinsabuagh said.  "They learn the techniques to make sharper cuts and get out of their breaks faster."

Later, the coaches held a draft at midfield and separated the players out into four teams for 7-on-7 play.  Each of the teams were run by two of the coaches.

If you haven't guessed already, this is the part of the camp that the coaches like best.  It's a chance for them to call plays, help position players, and simply put on their caps and whistles and be a coach.

"The biggest benefit for the kids is being able to get coached by different organizations," Moore said.  "Also, it's a chance to be around coaches outside of recruiting.  This is our natural habitat."

A football showcase camp like this can be a chance for a recruit to compete against his peers and catch the attention of college coaches.  Many camps have under the radar players that make a name for themselves with a strong performance.

An important factor when selecting a camp is to do one with college coaches present.  While they may not necessarily be the ultimate decision makers, they can start the ball rolling if there is interest in the school.  It is also worthwhile to consider your skill set, height, and weight when deciding whether or not to go to an FBS camp.  Some camps can be expensive and have hundreds of athletes participating.  The Arizona Showcase was nominally priced ($65 for the two days) and was limited to 100 campers.

There were some one-on-one drills between linemen and I watched Queen Creek's Duncan Andrews get past the OL trying to stop him from getting by.  Andrews, who also plays tight end for the Bulldogs, is 6-6 and worked on his pass blocking, kick steps, and pass rush moves at the camp.

"It was pretty intense," Andrews said.  "It was a highly competitive camp and it was really fun."

So what did he learn?

"I learned what a lot of coaches look for in their athletes," Andrews said.  "Also, what they can give out in scholarships."

After the 7-on-7 games, the players all grouped together and each of the six colleges in attendance had a chance to go up in front of them and give a short recruiting pitch on their school.  Other topics discussed included the "Grandma Rule" when it comes to social media, the emphasis on academics ranking highest in importance, and the consideration that everybody is not going to go D-I.

For Division III schools like Howard Payne, being at a camp like this is exposure for themselves to these Arizona players not familiar with the college.  I asked Moore, who came to HPU from Redlands (another D-III school) how the recruiting process works after a camp like this.

It starts with the student-athlete applying to the school (which is free).  Next the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is completed and reviewed to determine how much the school can award in need-based money.  Remember, Division III schools cannot give out athletic scholarships.  Next, the school checks out the student's grades and test scores (SAT/ACT).  If those academic levels are met, the player's film is evaluated with position coaches, coordinators, and the head coach.  Finally, the school tries to bring the player to their campus.  Every year, many Arizona high school players move on to the next level with a Division II, III, or NAIA program.  For a look at the Class of 2017 signees, click HERE.

Finally, awards were handed out based on the position coaches' evaluations over the two days.  Each of the eight positions were recognized as well as a Camp MVP.

Nick Arvay of Casteel was named the top quarterback.  In his freshman year, he was the backup for the Colts and also played QB for the JV team.  Casteel, a Chandler District School, had its first varsity season in 2016 with just freshmen and sophomores and went 9-2 in 3A.  The Colts are among the favorites for this year, despite having no seniors.  It is expected that Casteel will jump up to 5A in 2018.

Titarro Jones is ready to be the No. 1 running back at Santa Cruz Valley.  He took the RB honors at the camp.  Last year, Jones had 754 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Dust Devils finished 11-1 and rushed for 317 yards per game.

Kemo Akins is a slotback who is just 5-5 and 145 pounds.  That didn't stop the Maricopa player from the wide receiver award.

The top linemen had nice size with Isaiah Buendia of Coronado (6-4, 315) earning the OL award and King Kyler Fanene of Shadow Ridge (6-0, 320) taking top honors on the defensive side.  Fanene mainly played center for the Stallions.

Kaylan Elzy has played running back since his freshman year, but competed with the linebackers in this camp and won that group.  He is 6-foot and 198 pounds and showed outstanding cover skills.

Treyvon Williams has an offer from Arizona Christian already.  He will be a four-year starter at Desert Edge and was the best of the corners.  In addition to his 51 tackles last season, he also returned kickoffs and punts. 

"All the hard work pays off at some point in time," Williams said.  "All my coaches tell me to keep grinding."

Williams said the camp helped him work on getting his hips better to make more plays on the ball.  He is looking forward to the Scorpions' season opener at Centennial on Aug. 18 to see how he stacks up against the Coyotes' Dominique Hampton, who plays the same position.

Another Coronado player, Josh Fong, was the top safety.  Fong is 5-7 and 142 pounds, but showed a lot of speed in the agility drills.

MVP honors went to Ilm Manning, a defensive end from Apollo.  Manning is 6-4, and 240 pounds.  He also plays left tackle for the Hawks and was a Second Team All 5A-Metro Region performer at both OT and DE.  This spring, he threw the shot put and discus during track season.  At the GUHSD Championships in April, he won the shot put.  On the football field, Manning had 4.5 sacks as a junior.

The networking aspect was present as the skies darkened at the end of the camp.  Players went up to the coaches and exchanged information.  Building relationships is the start of the process.  Martinez said a total of 16 scholarship offers have gone to kids that attended this camp the past two years.  They weren't necessarily on the spot, but eventually as the coaches followed the athlete through his senior season.

So, the biggest consideration when it comes to a spring practice, a camp, or a varsity game this fall?

"You can't take any reps off," Martinez said.  "You don't know who's watching and how it could benefit you."

Pos. Player School Year
QB  Nick Arvay  Casteel  Sophomore
RB  Titarro Jones  Santa Cruz Valley  Senior
WR  Kemo Akins  Maricopa  Senior
OL  Isaiah Buendia  Coronado  Senior
DL  King Kyler Fanene  Shadow Ridge  Senior
LB  Kaylan Elzy  Moon Valley  Junior
CB  Treyvon Williams  Desert Edge  Senior
S  Josh Fong  Coronado  Junior
MVP  Ilm Manning (DE)  Apollo  Senior

PHOTO CAPTIONS:  TOP - Adams State Defensive Line coach Colin Fuller explains the proper positioning to athletes at the Arizona Showcase Camp last Sunday at Coronado HS.  Fuller was one of eight coaches at the two-day event.  ABOVE - Kaylan Elzy (right) is in tight coverage against a receiver during passing drills.  Elzy, a junior at Moon Valley, was named the top linebacker at the camp.

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Millennium hopes to build on big June

Tigers defense will be tested early

WEEKLY BLOG:  7/1/17

Millennium's season threatened to derail before it was even on the tracks.

One of the most anticipated days on the high school football calendar is Practice One of spring ball.  It's still pretty low-key (there's no pads or helmets yet), but when your season ended on the last Friday of October, the first Monday of May is a starting point for the underclassmen that finished the previous season.

And it was on that day that head coach James Carter, who was at MHS for just one season, suddenly resigned.

Assistant coaches, many who are still at the Goodyear school, ran things during that three week period.  Fortunately, Millennium found a taker for the job at a difficult time in the year to do so.  Lamar Early, who was at Estrella Foothills for the past 14 years (seven as the Wolves' head coach), was named the new head coach of the Tigers before the end of May.  He was able to begin coaching the team in June for work in the weight room and in 7-on-7 tournaments.  All in all, it was a pretty smooth transition.

"The Millennium job came open, I saw it as an opportunity, and I was looking for a challenge at the next level," Early said.  "Moving up in the ranks, I am blessed to lead the Tigers this year."

Estrella Foothills was in 3A (later Division IV) since its inaugural season in 2003 until last year, when the Wolves were moved up a level to the 4A Conference.  Early was 41-35 in his time as the head coach, highlighted by a 10-win season in 2015 and two trips to the quarterfinals.

Early's teams were known for being strong running teams as his time there coincided with the career of Joe Logan (now at NAU).  In three seasons, Logan rushed for more than 5,700 yards.  That part of the game for Millennium will need to be rebuilt as most of last year's ball carriers were seniors.  Davon Fountain, a junior, and senior Isaiah Yduarte have been working at the RB position.

The administration wanted to maintain a sense of stability given the late timing of the coaching change.

"I've inherited a staff," Early said.  "I'm still trying to grow with them and get to know them."

Last year's starter at the quarterback position, Ernie Pina, is back for his senior year.  He has a strong arm and threw for 1,718 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.  In a win over La Joya, Pina was 10-of-15 for 216 yards and three TDs.

But, Early hasn't guaranteed Pina will be the starter as of yet.  He's impressed with a couple of the younger guys.

"We're in a great situation," Early said.  "(Pina) has some competition at the QB position.  We have three legit quarterbacks who can play for us this year."

Because of the personnel that the Tigers have, Early is planning to run a spread offense.  He wants to let his athletes get out in space and showcase what they can do.  Millennium's strength will be its passing game.

One of those stars will be senior wide receiver Aidan Diggs.  He led Millennium with 45 receptions and also totaled 668 yards and four touchdowns.  A two-way player, Diggs made 52 tackles at cornerback.  He's also a threat to take any kick back to the house as he averaged 44.7 yards per return (15 returns) and brought back two for TDs last season from 85 and 90 yards.

"He's a special athlete," Early said of Diggs.  "He has speed and he's very elusive."

Defensively, Ryan Desrochers, who was the interim head coach for spring ball, is the coordinator and plans to use a 3-4 front.

On that side of the ball, top returners are linebacker Christian Brooks (89 tackles, three sacks) and defensive end Santana Simmons (5 sacks).  Both Brooks and Simmons are seniors.

In addition to Diggs in the special teams department, the Tigers return kicker Hunter Nemeth-Williams.  As a sophomore, he was perfect in extra point attempts (16-of-16) and also connected on seven field goals (long of 49).

Millennium had a lot of success starting with its third season in 2001.  From '01 through '13, the Tigers reached the playoffs 11 times and won eight or more games in seven of those 13 seasons.  Last year's MHS team finished 4-6 for the second straight season.

"The expectation for the program is to get the Tigers back to the winning attitude and the position that they're used to," Early said.  "Bring the discipline and stability."

The winning has started over the summer.  At the Nike Scottsdale, Millennium was the runner up in the Silver bracket.  At the West Side tournament, a double-overtime loss to Liberty left the Tigers as runners up.  Millennium reached the semifinals at both ASU and ACU (falling to Liberty again).

And it's not just the skill position players.  At the ACU Big Man challenge, Millennium finished third and would have taken the trophy had they pulled out the tug of war in the finals against Buckeye.

Finally, at the the Liberty two-night, eight-team competition, MHS broke through.  The Tigers won the big man competition and defeated Liberty in the finals of the 7-on-7 tournament.  The Millennium JV team also won the Cesar Chavez 7-on-7 tourney featuring those largely sophomore squads.  The Tigers topped Centennial's JV in the finals of that one.

Early said the summer competitions were about having fun.

"The kids are working their tails off," Early said.  "The thing I'm most proud of is that we're playing with the emotion."

That emotion will be vital at the start of the season.

Checking the schedule (same as last year), the Tigers will see Perry, Verrado, Desert Edge, and Skyline in the first four weeks of the season.  Those are all high-powered offensive squads.  Last year, the defense was not up to the test as the Tigers surrendered 196 points (avg. 49) in an 0-4 start.  This season, Millennium knows it must be in top form from the start if it wants to be a contender in the 6A Southwest Region.

"The biggest part is going to be competing and overcoming adversity," Early said.  "It's making sure that we're mentally tough week after week because we're going to be challenged."

Later in July, Millennium will head to Winslow for football camp.  The site is familiar to Early as he used to take Estrella Foothills to the same place.

PHOTO CAPTION:  Millennium will kick off its 19th season of varsity football in Goodyear with back-to-back home games.  Perry (Aug. 25) and Verrado (Sept. 1) will visit MHS.  Perry played in the 6A semifinals last season and returns QB Brock Purdy.  Verrado knocked off Desert Edge in Week 10 to crack the 5A playoff field.  The Vipers feature running back Ja'tai Jenkins.  If the Tigers can defeat La Joya, Copper Canyon, and Tolleson, the game on Oct. 20 against Westview (at Millennium) could decide the region.

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Gilbert producing high-caliber student-athletes

Tigers set sights on a better season in the win-loss column

WEEKLY BLOG:  6/24/17

Gilbert had a rough go under second-year head coach Derek Zellner last year.  The Tigers finished on a six-game losing streak, allowing 35 or more points in five of those defeats.  Gilbert did upend Westwood in the teams' first meeting since 2010.  The 1-9 record, however, was the Tigers' worst since 1994.

Yet, there were a handful of games that GHS wishes it could have back.  A few relatively narrow losses - Dobson (23-21), Corona del Sol (24-16), Highland (36-34), and even Desert Ridge, where Gilbert went toe-to-toe with the Jaguars for the first half, until collapsing in the second half in a 41-7 loss - left a sour taste.

Last year was filled with injuries (two players were lost due to ACL's), which then led to having to field inexperienced players in the lineup.  But in this new year, which started with spring ball and continued into 7-on-7's in June, it's a time of optimism.

"(Spring ball was) three weeks of looking at where we want to improve from last year," Zellner said.  "If we can stay healthy and have our linemen come around, we should be much stronger this year."

It's a good thing that Jack Plummer, one of the state's best quarterbacks, returns for his senior season.  In his second year as the starter, Plummer passed for 2,475 yards and 18 touchdowns.  The Tigers had just three rushing TDs on the year and Plummer accounted for 348 pass attempts and 116 carries (including sacks).  Runs by anyone else on Gilbert were made on just 101 plays (18 percent).  Quite simply, Plummer did just about everything for Gilbert on offense.  Earlier this month, he committed to Purdue, choosing the Boilermakers over finalists South Carolina and Boise State.

"I've had some great quarterbacks," Zellner said.  "This guy is very special.  Accurate, and one of the smartest quarterbacks I've had the opportunity to coach.  I have great trust in him."

Purdue is getting a gem indeed.  An excellent student, Plummer has a 4.6 GPA.  He is also 6-5 and has bulked up by being dedicated in the weight room from 193 to 212 pounds.  So, how did he get to Big Ten country?

Gilbert defensive coordinator Brandon Johnson was a linebacker in his college days at Louisville.  He was drafted in 2006 by the Arizona Cardinals and also played for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  While Johnson was at Louisville, Jeff Brohm was one of the assistants on the staff.  Fast forward to December of last year, when Brohm was hired to be Purdue's new head coach.  Johnson put a call in and set up an unofficial visit for Plummer.  After arriving in West Lafayette, Plummer fell in love with the place, saw it as a good fit, and committed shortly thereafter.  By committing early, he doesn't have the looming decision consuming his thoughts during the season.  Plummer is the first QB recruit for Brohm, who was a quarterback at Louisville, and later for seven years in the NFL.

The starting receivers look to be seniors Dawson Tanner and Corvan Otanez.  Zellner called Tanner 'lightning in a bottle'.  He can line up in the slot or on the outside.  Tanner carries that all-important burst of speed, which is also valuable as a punt and kick returner (averaged 23 yards per kick return in '16).

"Dawson is a great kid with a tremendous work ethic," Zellner said.  "He plays bigger than 5-10."

In addition to his pass-catching skills, Otanez plays a key role in the defense.  He can play safety or linebacker and is a jack-of-all-trades.  The bright spot on the Gilbert defense, Otanez paced the Tigers with 134 tackles.  He took down 17 ball carriers in three different games last season.  Also an honors student (4.4 GPA), Otanez holds an Ivy League offer from Columbia.  He has also seen results in the weight room and is up from 190 pounds to 205.

Returning from an injury that cost him nearly all of last season (foot fracture) is senior WR Tyler LaGanke.  Also, Jack's younger brother Will, who played quarterback on the freshman team (and later the JV) last season is up on varsity as a sophomore and is his brother's backup.  Coach Z has also been working Will at tight end during 7-on-7 season.

Zellner said the team dedicated itself to offseason training.  About 48-55 kids have been arriving at 5 a.m. for practice on Monday through Thursday since school let out.  Following some (really) early morning outside work, the team hits the weight room.  With all of the injuries, Gilbert finished with 34 players in Week 10 against Mountain Pointe.  The lines should be improved as three players got significant playing time as sophomores.  With Plummer at the controls, the Tigers should score.  But the defense, which allowed 378 points, has to improve.

Johnson will go with either a four-man or three-man front.  The coaches analyze their personnel to see what the best fit is for the scheme against a particular opponent.  Helping the decision making will be the schedule, which is identical to last year.  In 2016, the Tigers faced just four similar opponents from the year before.  A boost will come to the defense in Ray Vega.  The linebacker doesn't shy away from contact.  He sat out last season after having to undergo wrist surgery.

Many times, Gilbert was forced to go five-wide on offense due to the lack of a running game (average 31 yards per game).  Senior running back Cameron Middleton was in and out of the lineup with injuries in '16.  Dominick Amendolara was forced to sit his junior year as he transferred into GHS from Perry.

The goal for the Tigers is to keep improving.  The 2015 team, which was within a last-minute field goal of making the Division II playoffs, had 25 seniors on it.  Last year, there were only a handful of contributing seniors.  This year's team features so many more.

The start of the buy-in for the program comes in the classroom.  Zellner has reiterated to his team that the first thing college coaches ask when they come on campus are the grades of their prospective recruits.  The message has registered as 28 of those 34 players that finished the 2016 season had a 3.0 GPA or higher.

"It's important how well the character of the students is," Zellner said.  "They're being much more respectful on campus.  We take great pride stressing the academic side of things."

One of the benefits of 7-on-7 passing league tournaments is the confidence that can be instilled through experiencing success.  At ASU on June 12, Gilbert defeated Desert Mountain in the quarterfinals and then Notre Dame Prep in the semis.  The Tigers fell to Cienega by a 25-19 score in the championship.  On June 17 at NAU, the Gilbert linemen finished in 7th in the Big Man competition (out of 32 schools).  It's a process of learning how to win.  While it's not the same as winning a "regular" football game, it's still stepping stones in the process.

Gilbert will be challenged right out of the gate with games against district rivals Mesquite (home) and Campo Verde (road).  The Wildcats and Coyotes combined to go 15-7 last season.

Last May, Gilbert High graduated its 100th class.  The sign in the press box that reads sportsmanship, citizenship, and scholarship rings true to the lessons that Zellner is teaching to his athletic pupils.

"We have come a million miles, but we still have a ways to go," Zellner said.  "We have full support of the administration.  They're pleased with what we're doing."

PHOTO CAPTION:  The setup begins in the press box at Gilbert High on another Friday night.  The Tigers will open their 2017 campaign on August 25 against rival Mesquite.  The teams have met in all 18 of Mesquite's seasons with GHS holding a 13-5 advantage in the series.  Gilbert will be looking to atone for last season's 37-3 loss to MHS.  In that one, the Wildcats scored on their first five possessions in the game.

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Thoughts from a summer Saturday in the sun

Bendle leads Liberty to ACU passing tournament win

WEEKLY BLOG:  6/11/17

In the year-round cycle that is high school football, June has become known as 7-on-7 and big man challenge "season".  Annual tournaments pop up around the Valley, whether it's north in Flagstaff, or down in Tucson.  Normally, I just check the twitter feed for some results and photos (which I share) and return to the air-conditioned confines of my living room.  But after eight years of this, I decided to check one out.

So it was off to the Scottsdale Sports Complex in north Phoenix.  During the Waste Management Open, this is the site of the famed Birds Nest, but on two summer Saturdays, it's home to a pair of competitions.  Saturday, Arizona Christian University hosted the passing tournament and the lineman competition.

For the uninitiated, 7-on-7 kind of looks like your normal school yard football.  One quarterback, a center, and five players who are eligible to receive passes.  There's no runs, reverses, or double passes.  Games were played with a 25-minute running clock (no time outs!).  Half-fields are used and play started on the 40 with three downs to reach the 25, three more to get to the 10, and three to score. 

Kickers are not people too at these events as there are no punts, kickoffs, or field goals.  Touchdowns are the normal six with a PAT from either the 5-yard line (1 point), or the 10 (2 points).  An interesting nuance is the ability of the defense to score - 2 points at this tournament - for an interception.

Since games are played without helmets and pads, tackling is not allowed (one-hand touch).  With no pass rush, to simulate getting the ball off quickly, quarterbacks were allowed four seconds to release the ball before a loss of down call.  Offenses weren't able to stall as there was a 30-second play clock.  Defenders were allowed to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage only.  Rather than have quarterbacks retreat to the sidelines, one offensive coach stood behind the offense along with a maximum of three players.

For the ACU event, 19 different schools were represented from large 6A teams down to 2A and one from the Canyon Athletic Association.  Eighteen were in the passing tournament and 16 in the big man challenge.  Let's take a trip through the day and bounce around.

One of the great things about these are the ability to see, or for players to compete against, several different schools in one day.  With games shorter and without linemen, most were very competitive.  As a matter of fact, I saw more close games (six decided by four or less) in 5-1/2 hours, than I did all of last season!

Seven of the 18 teams in the passing tournament are being led by new head coaches this season.  Verrado is one of them as defensive coordinator Tom Ward was elevated to the position after Derek Wahlstrom resigned in April.  The Vipers started the day with a 32-6 victory over Chino Hills as their new-look defense allowed just one score.

"Our strength will be up front," Ward said.  "But, we're starting a whole new secondary.  We're real young back there."

It's not always possible for vacation schedules for families to coincide with the month of June, so when starters are gone, it gives younger kids a chance to get a some experience and a better idea of what's in store speed and cover-wise.

Verrado finished 7-4 last season, defeated Desert Edge for the first time, and made the 5A playoffs.  The Vipers benefit from having an offseason class in the spring semester, so they have been working all year.  New quarterback Titan Widjaja, a junior, has several weapons including running back Ja'tai Jenkins, and receivers Jonah Alicea and Marcus Rivera.

Another new coach is Vince Ciliberti, who has been a longtime offensive coordinator at Pinnacle.  Ciliberti is now at Mountain Ridge after being hired in February.  He is the Mountain Lions' first new head coach in 11 years.  MRHS has a record of 12-28 over the past four seasons.  Mountain Ridge eked out a 20-18 win in its first game against Washington.

"They're very hard workers," Ciliberti said of his team.  "That's one of the things that surprised me.  You'd think coming in with a team that was consistently 3-7, you wouldn't see that.  It's kind of refreshing."

Mountain Ridge doesn't have a lot of depth, but was looking to compete and learn how to play together at this event.  Owen Gordon is one of the few receivers with experience.  For a school that hasn't won a lot on Friday nights, pulling out games on Saturday mornings are the start of the building blocks of learning how to win.

Palo Verde was the lone Tucson school to make the bus ride up early on Saturday morning in time for its first game at 10 a.m.  This was the Titans' third trip north to the Valley in a couple weeks.  PVHS was at Central High School's tournament at the end of May and also participated at ASU earlier this week.  It may seem like head coach Larry Ruhf is throwing his 4A school to the wolves by taking on so many 5A and 6A opponents, but it's helping the Titans a little each day.  After a sluggish first half, Palo Verde rallied for a 16-14 win over Sequoia Pathway, a CAA school that was a late add-in.

"When we play some 6A and 5A teams in Phoenix, it doesn't seem so daunting when we play Tucson teams," Ruhf said.  "They don't worry about the size difference as much."

Palo Verde's quarterback from last year wasn't on this trip, so Devonte Bates was playing the position.  Bates is a basketball player that they talked into playing some football.  Ruhf said Bates is probably the best receiver they have at their school.  The Titans are 4-27 over the past three seasons, but the team is just working to get better every play.

After those three games, I took a trip up to the north fields where the big man competition was going on.  The challenge consisted of eight events.  They were a 20-yard dash (because, do linemen really need to run further?), two different shuttle agility drills, a medicine ball toss, a farmer's carry (with two 80-pound dumbbells), a tractor tire flip (which weighed 300 pounds), a 45-pound plate push relay, and the tug of war.  Points were awarded in each of the first seven competitions and were used to seed teams for the tug of war.

I watched a few schools do the tire flip.  Each team was allowed to compete with five players per event.  In this one, it was simply how many times each one could flip the very large tire in 30 seconds.  The score was the cumulative total of all five competitors.  There were some who had difficulties even getting the tire up to its peak to flip it over once.  It was enlightening to see the big guys from the other schools encourage those who aren't as strong to reach deep and do their best to get even one or two.

The groups that worked best had all five members (and teammates who weren't competing in it), giving vocal support to help and in some cases it was like a wave as some were able to flip it seven or eight times.  Copper Canyon was one of those schools.

"The kids just work really hard," Copper Canyon assistant coach Akin said.  "They're especially committed to getting stronger this year."

Akin said events like this are a way to measure themselves against other teams in the Valley to see where they stack up.  The Aztecs were 3-7 last season and have not had a winning record since 2006.

After that, it was back for the last of the three games of pool play for Desert Ridge and Horizon.  Desert Ridge was 8-4 last season and the Jaguars have won at least that many for seven straight years.  But head coach Jeremy Hathcock's team is younger this season, and he just lost one of his best defensive linemen as Jason Harris transferred to Higley earlier this week.  In a back-and-forth game, DRHS topped Horizon 22-19 to finish 3-0 before the tournament began.

"When they're young, they're like clay," Hathcock said.  "They're so moldable.  It's one of the first groups in a long time that wants to be coached."

Desert Ridge played with a lot of enthusiasm as the team was coming off a poor outing at ASU and wanted to redeem itself.  Three different quarterbacks saw time for the Jaguars as sophomore starter Matt Purnell has been battling a back issue.  Purnell started four games last season as a freshman.  Hathcock said passing league teaches players how to understand how to work their leverage.

After that, the results from the morning were tabulated and the 18-team bracket (single elimination) took shape.  Four schools had a play-in game to reach the field of 16.  Mountain Ridge (15th seed) was in one of those games while Verrado was the No. 1 seed.  In a first-round game Desert Ridge (#3) took on Palo Verde (#14).

As those games began, I ate a quick lunch and reloaded Gatorade from the cooler brought in the car and hoofed it back to the Big Man as the tug of war was getting set to start.

Just like the passing league, Verrado was the top seed heading into the last event.  Copper Canyon (#10) pulled (literally) a couple of upsets over O'Connor and Desert Ridge in the first two rounds of the tug of war to reach the semifinals.  In the quarterfinals, Verrado fell to Horizon and lost the ability to earn any more points.  In the end, it was Millennium (#5) and Buckeye (#3) meeting one another in the finals.  With eight points at stake in the last round, the winner would pass Verrado in total score.  That ended up being Buckeye.  Verrado placed second overall followed by Millennium and Desert Ridge.

"We've been working pretty hard in the weight room since March," Buckeye defensive line coach Sam Marquez said.  "These kids put their work in."

Buckeye has gone 23-9 over the past three seasons under Kelley Moore.  The Hawks won the 4A Southwest Region last season and will open 2017 season on the island of Oahu against Kailua HS.  The Surfriders (they have those there) were 3-5 last year.  Moore's team could be looking to make more noise this year and it starts up front with the line, which has now won two lineman competitions this month.  BHS was victorious in Peoria a week ago at the Westside competition.

"We work really hard," senior right tackle and defensive lineman Angel Gordillo said.  "We want to get noticed out in Buckeye."

Gordillo said the atmosphere I saw around the tire flip is normal for them. 

"In the weight room, all the starting linemen lift together," Gordillo said.

For what it's worth, Gordillo said his favorite event was the 5-10-5 shuttle and he thought the toughest was the 45-pound plate push.  The plate had to be maneuvered around a cone and back to the starting position which required a perfect balance.

With that event over, it was time reload with another Gatorade in the car (coolers are wonderful things) and check in on the tournament.

The quarterfinals were just getting under way and #5 Copper Canyon was meeting #4 O'Connor.  Of all the teams in the passing competition, the Aztecs showed the most spirit on the sidelines.  It's an infectious attitude brought on by head coach Shawn Kemmer and it goes beyond the game of football.  On the field, Kemmer said the team was close to hitting its ceiling as the Aztecs held off a late O'Connor rally for a 22-18 win.

"We're going to do a lot of community service work," Kemmer said.  "I really believe in developing the whole kid."

Copper Canyon works with the Feeding Hope Food Bank in Glendale on a regular basis.  As far as the spirit goes, it's the mantra of INAM - It's Not About Me.  It's an attitude of being selfless and giving maximum effort (or close to it) while playing for one another regardless of the stats you may put up on any given night or day.

That game ended a little earlier than the other quarterfinal on the adjacent field, so I got to see the end of Horizon against Buckeye.  I had to double check my bracket to see that, like the tug of war, Horizon knocked off top-seeded Verrado in this tournament as well.  Horizon tried to battle back late, but dropped a 27-20 decision to Buckeye.

It was after that I noticed one of the best things of the day.  Away from the crowds following the tournament and away from the referees, Palo Verde was playing a game against Chino Valley.  They could have hit the long road back home to their respective schools after bowing out, but they wanted to get a little more work in before grabbing lunch and getting out of town.

With Copper Canyon meeting Buckeye and Liberty taking on Millennium, it was an all-West Valley final four.  I took my first look of the day at the Lions and Tigers.

You get the feeling with all passing that the game is skewed toward the offenses.  But that wasn't the case in this semifinal.  It was Liberty's defense that forced seven coverage "sacks".  After four seconds of looking around and being unable to find anyone open (or not risk throwing an interception), the referee's whistle would blow and a down would be docked from Millennium.  The Lions had just enough offense as they hung on for a 17-14 victory.

"Our kids compete to the whistle," Liberty head coach Mark Smith said.  "With the coverage sacks, our D-linemen would get there in that amount of time in a game."

Smith said the main thing he is looking for this offseason is consistency.  When the Lions need a play, who will they go to?  On defense, who is going to step up and be that vocal leader that's needed in tough times?  Compounding things is the need for a lot of coaching as 17 of the 22 starters this year will be new.  The offense returns just one starter, quarterback Ryan Bendle.  And Bendle didn't play QB last season.  He rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Liberty faced Buckeye in the finals and after taking a 24-14 lead, the Lions fell behind 30-24.  Buckeye senior receiver Elias Anderson made an incredible leaping one-handed catch for one of the scores.  The Lions tied the game in the final minute on a touchdown play from Bendle to Dylen Bieber.  With strong play from Bieber, running back Jett Kinsch and receiver Jace Johnson, the Lions have options where to go to when they need a play in critical moments.

"We're definitely stacked in a lot of positions," Bendle said.  "Our defensive locks it down every time in spring ball."

This was the second consecutive weekend that Liberty has won a passing title.  Like Buckeye's bigs, the Lions' skill players took honors at the Westside tournament.  It's also important to remember that when Bendle was the freshman quarterback, he played with the guys that are seniors around him now.  So, while they may be new to starting positions, they are familiar with one another.

Bendle said 7-on-7 is a lot different then "regular football".  There's much less contact.  But a benefit in passing league is learning how to figure out coverages.

The coaches and staff at Arizona Christian put on a great tournament.  They served as the referees, the judges, schedulers, and much more.  Like the Nike tournament that was played in this same venue on May 27, the facility serves well with plenty of available fields without too much walking.  Also, in the spirit of the university, Moore told the Liberty team that he was going to lead his team in a post-game prayer.  The Lions wrapped up quick and every player and coach joined in the huddle.  It was also a reminder to be grateful of the things that didn't happen during the day.  Namely injuries, people dropping from heatstroke, and fighting.

Nearly every coach I talked to stated the reason they were there was to get better.  The competition created by getting to face someone different than who they see every day in practice is a factor as well.

So while the sunburn that I'm sporting will fade away in a week or so, the memories will remain.  No, 7-on-7 isn't the same thing we'll see on Friday nights under the lights later this summer (first game is August 17) and skills in tug of war won't win anyone a state title, but it will help teams improve on what they have by then.

PHOTO CAPTION:  (Far Top) Liberty quarterback Ryan Bendle gets ready to fire a pass in Saturday's Arizona Christian Passing Tournament.  The Lions finished 7-0 to take home the trophy in this second annual event.  (Above) Buckeye's five linemen dig in and move the rope (and their opposition) in the tug of war competition.  By winning the final, it vaulted the Hawks from third to first in total points.

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