After the school sports seasons were shut down in the spring of 2020, crushing the dreams of athletes across the country, there were those who hoped that by that summer, there would be a tiny movement back toward normalcy. But such was not the case. There would be no open gyms, no organized off-season conditioning, and no summer leagues. It was the worst of time and…well, just the worst of times.
This summer has seen a glorious burst of enthusiasm. While the pandemic should be gone but isn’t totally (blame fringe politics), it’s mostly gone and high-school athletes have returned to the drudgery (and sheer joy) of off-season work with glee on their faces.
It’s a brutally hot Tuesday out in the middle of nowhere, where sits Marana High School and nothing else for as far as the eye can see. Out on the football field, at least 60 guys are doing conditioning drills in the late-afternoon heat. There are no complaints seeing as how a week earlier it had hit a record 115 degrees. During that entire week, the Amphitheater School District (and others) had banned all outdoor athletic activity on all of their campuses basically during the 14 hours that the sun was up. For nearly a week, the mercury hit 100 degrees just after 8 in the morning and didn’t drop down to double digits until almost midnight. The average overnight “low” was a miserable 83 degrees.
But that was last week. Today it’s only 105 and it’s go time. The seven-on-seven squad from Ironwood Ridge walks in groups down to the football field. Soon it will be game time.
Seven-on-seven football has gone from being the gridiron version of a pickup game of three-on-three basketball to being de rigueur for just about every prep football program in the country. It’s basically a way for quarterbacks and receivers (including backs) to work on pass patterns and timing. Linebackers and defensive backs work on various zone or man-to-man schemes.
The rules are simple. Everyone on offense (except the center who snaps the ball) is eligible to go out for passes. There are no running plays and there is no rushing the quarterback. The QB has a strict four seconds to throw the ball. If he doesn’t get rid of the ball in that time, it’s a loss of down. There is no tackling; strictly two-hand touch below the neck. Even run-happy teams play summer seven-on-seven, if for no other reason than to give their defensive players some work.
It’s played on a short field with a limited number of first downs, so a team can’t nickel-and-dime its way down the field. If a DB picks off a pass, it’s a change of possession. Turnovers can be killers. If a defensive player intercepts a pass and runs it back to the end zone, it may look cool, but it doesn’t count as a touchdown.
In Marana’s Norm Patton Gym, there are enough boys to have three full-court games going on side by side in the (with about a dozen others waiting on the sidelines to get in the games). The first day of open gym this year, the day after Memorial Day, more than 50 boys showed up for workouts. The numbers have fluctuated somewhat with families finally being able to go on vacation and several of the hoop players spending time out on the football field.
The girls program, with somewhat smaller numbers, is in the Alumni Gym, working on plays that will be tried out in summer league competitions. Like everybody else who lived through (and missed out on) the summer of 2020), they’re just happy to be in the gym with their teammates and coaches.
The next night, both gyms on the Flowing Wells High School campus are going full tilt, two games on the hour in the big gym and another game in the East Gym. Twice a week, games featuring girls’ teams go from late afternoon until nearly 10.
Besides giving the athletes much-needed competition and the chance for team building, the Flowing Wells Summer League also serves as a much-needed training ground for future referees. The ref school, run by legendary local refs Chris Rastatter and Bob Schofield (both of whom have reffed NCAA Final Four games), has established refs teaching newcomers on the fly, throwing them in the deep end to see how they react to game-time conditions.
Flowing Wells Coach Michael Perkins’ squad reached the Class 5A State championship game this past spring despite not having the summer league last year. But even with the madness of multiple games going on in one gym with tag-team novice refs, he and all the other coaches (as well as the players and parents) are just thrilled to be back at it.