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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Summer football practices showed signs of what was to come

Formerly snubbed by many coaches, seven-on-seven passing competitions have become a vital part of preparation for top Southern California high school teams.

December 07, 2009|Eric Sondheimer
  • Westlake receiver Nelson Spruce looks for some running room after making a catch against Moorpark in a 38-14 victory in Marmonte League play last month.
Westlake receiver Nelson Spruce looks for some running room after making… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )

Ten seasons into the 21st century, it's clear that high school football in Southern California has been changed forever, and the reason is what happens during summer practices.

No longer do fans, coaches or even players need to wait until pads are put on in the fall to figure out which teams are going to be good. All the clues become visible during those so-called "meaningless" seven-on-seven passing competitions.

That's the lesson learned from last summer. There was one school that stood out above all others -- Huntington Beach Edison. The Chargers never lost, whether playing Westlake Village Oaks Christian or Long Beach Poly. You saw the special chemistry that was forming, their toughness and versatility.

In the first passing tournament of the summer last June at Dana Hills, Anaheim Servite had the audacity to show up without its starting quarterback, Cody Fajardo. He was away at a camp. The Friars were supposed to go through the motions, shake hands and take their lumps. They made it to the tournament quarterfinals, letting everyone know that the pieces to success were coming together, and just wait until Fajardo was available.

In Ventura County, there was this young but inconsistent group of players from Westlake. They had a junior-to-be receiver named Nelson Spruce who never left the field and kept making stunning catches. They had these giant sophomores standing on the sideline who looked too young to shave but big enough to knock down a brick wall.

There was the team from Mission Hills Alemany that kept finishing first in passing tournaments behind an untested junior quarterback, Vernon Adams, and a running back, Malcolm Marable, who was showing skills as a defensive back.

Twice a week, Los Angeles Crenshaw players would carpool to Los Angeles Loyola in the early evening and test themselves against Southern Section opponents. That's where their supersonic-like speed was visible and their dedication to become a champion was taking shape.

So this weekend's championship matchups are hardly surprising. In the Pac-5, it's Edison (13-0) vs. Servite (12-1) on Saturday night at Angel Stadium. No team yet has figured out how to beat the Chargers, but Fajardo & Co. are ready to give it a shot.

In the Northern Division, those talented underclassmen from Westlake (13-0) have accelerated their development. Spruce has caught 17 touchdown passes. The Warriors will be the No. 1 team in Southern California in 2010, but they just might win a championship a year early against Moorpark (12-1).

Alemany (10-3) is playing in its first championship game in the Western Division against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa (11-2). The hiring of former Newhall Hart passing guru Dean Herrington four years ago has paid off. The move of Marable from safety to cornerback after an early-season loss to North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake has worked.

Crenshaw (13-0) continues to dominate in the City Section and has one more obstacle ahead, Harbor City Narbonne (8-5), on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum before it gets to become the first City team selected for a CIF state championship bowl game.

No psychic was needed to see all this happening.

Back in June and July, in the weight room and on the practice field, the signs were becoming clear, whether it was watching Edison's receivers making catch after catch or seeing Westlake Coach Jim Benkert act like a child on Christmas every time he gave hand signals and saw his improving offensive players execute a play.

It should be noted that during the 1990s, lots of coaches used to be skeptical about placing importance on what happened in summer passing competitions.

Now, there's new thinking.

"It's just vital," Alemany's Herrington said.

Added Benkert: "It's probably the most important part of our preparation."

Passing competitions teach players to compete, develop the secondary and passing game, create camaraderie and reveal strengths and weaknesses before pads and linemen are added in August.

To the old-timers who still don't think those seven-on-seven duels mean much, I say they have transformed the sport. I can't take a vacation in June or July anymore because what happens then will tell me who's going to be playing in December.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATsondheimer

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