As Higley High School opened its 2020 campaign with a 26-18 win over Mountain Pointe, it marked an abrupt end of play for Aidan Garcia.
The wide receiver suffered a broken ankle in the game, which sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. For three months, Garcia was unable to walk without crutches or a walking boot.
But now, the rising senior is back to full speed ahead of his final season for the Knights. Garcia was able to showcase his skills, highlighted by a 40-yard touchdown on a post route, Thursday night as ten high schools participated in a seven-on-seven competition at Higley’s campus in Gilbert.
“It’s awesome,” Higley head coach Eddy Zubey said. “A lot of guys, this is their first time doing it because they didn’t get to do it last year. It’s good to see the kids come together and build that camaraderie.”
Seven-on-seven competitions, a way for teams to practice against other schools and assess position battles, were canceled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that it is safe enough to resume play, Zubey holds the Higley Varsity Passing League every Tuesday night in June for schools across the East Valley.
While the format is similar to that of a non-padded practice — two-hand touch marks a tackle and no score is recorded — the return of seven-on-sevens are enabling players to strengthen bonds on the field ahead of the regular season.
For Devin Sparks, a senior wide receiver at Mountain Pointe, competing under the Arizona sunsets is a familiar feeling. He took part in the Pride’s offseason seven-on-seven practices as a sophomore. Approaching his final year of high school football, Sparks and his teammates are looking to use these scrimmages as a way to improve mechanics and speed.
Additionally, he is focusing on acclimating new players to the fast and physical environment of 6A Division varsity football.
“It’s about making chemistry with my teammates better,” Sparks said. “It’s about getting the younger guys out here, getting them to compete and getting better as a team. And just make sure everyone is doing their job.”
The weekly event includes 10 6A squads from localities such as Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Ahwatukee and Queen Creek. Each team played six 20-minute games at the Knights’ stadium or their practice field. Even though wins and losses were not the main focus of the two-and-a-half period, competition was still fierce between some of the Valley’s top high school programs, as well as within the teams themselves.
Despite only running 15 percent of its offense, Red Mountain head coach Mike Peterson appreciated the ability to work with his players in a seven-on-seven environment for the first time in two years. He watched closely as the Mountain Lions’ quarterbacks practiced dropping back to pass during games, since run plays, screens, and play action passes are not utilized during sevens.
The Passing League also offered the fourth-year head coach a prime opportunity to evaluate his team’s up-and-coming talent like rising junior wideout Ja’kobi Lane. Against teams such as Basha and Mountain View, Peterson said receivers practiced running crisp and consistent routes and how to read opposing defenses. He also worked with Red Mountain’s defense and linemen.
Coming off a 1-7 season, Mountain Pointe head coach Eric Lauer complemented his player’s trust in one another and their coaches. Ahead of the 2021 season, he is using seven-on-sevens to pay close attention to the strengths of his players.
“Is he a defensive player versus an offens(ive) because he doesn’t catch the ball quite as well versus another guy that he’s battling with on offense?” Lauer said. “You want to try to identify who those guys are. Those game-changing guys that you gotta have on both sides of the ball, you start to find who they are as well.”
From under the bright afternoon sky to under the floodlights, position battles were on display for multiple teams. In the case of Higley, Zubey is looking to find a quarterback to succeed Kai Millner, a three-star recruit who signed with the University of California, Berkeley. The competition is between junior Cash Merrell and freshman Jamar Malone, who moved to the Valley from Carson, California.
According to Zubey, the Knights were not as affected by the loss of sevens as other teams due to Millner — who finished his career with 4,564 passing yards and 46 touchdowns — returning as an experienced starter in 2020. But in 2021, seven-on-seven competition has provided the signal callers the environment to not only compete, but also face different coverages from teams other than Higley.
“Coming in junior (year), first time being on Varsity, the guys got a faster speed than JV,” Merrell said. “Just getting familiar with the guys and getting better. Kai’s a great quarterback and it’s gonna be a lot to live up to him.”
Other teams, like Desert Vista, already have their signal caller locked in for next season. Junior quarterback Jackson Akins will return for his second consecutive season under center for the Thunder, who are looking to rebound from a 0-6 season that included cancelled games due to COVID-19 protocols.
Even though Desert Vista primarily runs the triple option, Akins felt that playing from the shotgun during sevens helped improve his ability to make reads and look off the safeties. First-year coach Ty Wisdom, who came to the Thunder from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, shared that the team worked on the triple option all spring and that the offensive strategy will be ready for use during the season.
Wisdom emphasized how it is important to keep in perspective that “it’s seven on seven.” However, he is thrilled at yet another opportunity to evaluate the team and watch his players connect on the gridiron.
“It’s obviously great having summer stuff,” Wisdom said. “This being my first year at Desert Vista, just getting to know the guys and building those relationships is the most important to me.”