Frederick County football teams enjoying 7-on-7 events

STEPHENS CITY — In an interview last month for a story about the 2016 Millbrook football team, former Pioneer center Nic Kline recalled that there was a lot of “chirping” prior to the team’s clash with rival Sherando to end the regular season.
In last Wednesday afternoon’s competition between the Pioneers and Warriors, observers could see Millbrook coach Josh Haymore in the middle of the field giving 6-foot-6 senior Sherando linebacker/receiver Keli Lawson a distant “air high five” just after he made an interception.
No one could have predicted that Millbrook football players would be on Sherando’s practice field in October even just a few months ago, but nothing has been predictable in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. Creativity has been essential for sports participation since March, and that’s allowing football players in Frederick County to get a taste of competition while they wait for the Virginia High School League season to start in February.
After scuttling its original plans for a seven-team league, Frederick County Parks & Recreation has organized a three-team, six-week 7v7 Passing League that began on Sept. 30 and ends on Nov. 4. There is no fee to participate.
The league is sponsored only by FCPR and is not affiliated with Frederick County Public Schools, though the players and coaches for the three teams are divided along school lines — Millbrook, Sherando and James Wood. FCPR cares for the fields and grounds at the three high schools throughout the year under a Frederick County joint use agreement.
Every Wednesday, prospective varsity players compete for the first hour, followed by JV players for the second hour at one of the three high schools.
“Finally going against another team, and not just working out with each other, is great,” said Lawson, who has verbally committed to Virginia Tech. “It adds a little bit of spice and a little bit of excitement [to our workouts], and I just really enjoy that.
“I’m a competitor. Especially since we didn’t have a [high school] season this whole time, any type of competition, I’ll take it.”
Each team will compete against the other two teams twice each, though no one will hold up a trophy once it’s over. There are no officials and no score is kept, which is a different approach from the plans for the scrapped seven-team league. It’s more like competitive practice as evidenced by the amount of conversations that were taking place amongst coaches and athletes between plays last Wednesday.
And it’s not traditional high school football — there are no helmets, no pads and no tackling, with only a light touch by gloved athletes bringing plays to a stop. With teams taking turns with the ball from the 40-yard line — and as evidenced by the league’s name, no running — time-consuming drives do not exist.
But the numerous smiles on display last Wednesday showed you don’t always need to see the bright lights on a scoreboard or hear the sound of pads clacking together to enjoy playing football.
Sherando opened with James Wood on Sept. 30, but last Wednesday was Millbrook’s first foray into the 7v7 league.
“It was our first time competing in a long time, and I liked it a lot,” said Millbrook senior wide receiver/defensive back Aidan Haines.
“It’s always fun to have competition,” James Wood senior running back and linebacker Joey Vitola said in an interview last week.
FCPR Superintendent of Recreation Chris Konyar is glad he could help make it happen, even if it’s not in the form the organization originally intended.
“We’re just trying to give the kids an opportunity to do some football-related things,” Konyar said. “Seven-on-7 kind of checks all the boxes in terms of the health and the wellness guidelines from the [Centers for Disease Control], social distancing, all those things.”
Over the summer, the plan was to have seven schools participate in the league — the three Frederick County schools, Handley, Clarke County, Strasburg and Central. Officials would oversee the competition, and scores would be kept. The league was supposed to start Sept. 9.
But as time went on, FCPR realized that the scope of their plan might be too big. The plan was to have all seven schools compete every week, and most schools intended on fielding multiple JV teams in addition to their varsity team.
In talks among itself and with health officials, FCPR came to the realization that a competitive league would likely exceed the state’s limit of more than 250 people for recreational events. There are multiple fields that can be used at the various high schools, but Konyar noted that at Millbrook, for example, it has two practice fields that are in close proximity to each other.
“We would have to have multiple fields going to get them in,” said Konyar, who with the current setup only needs to have one field at a school in use. “There was buzz about it and we were thinking there’d be a lot of congregating spectators, and some people might be hanging around for other games. That environment is not really conducive to what’s going on right now. We didn’t want to do anything that was considered a health hazard.”
Rather than bring in people from outside the area, FCPR then decided to pivot to just the three Frederick County schools and Handley. Judges coach Dan Jones declined though because by that point Handley boys’ basketball coach Zach Harrell and wrestling coach Troy Mezzatesta had each decided to make Wednesdays workout days for their sports, and he didn’t want his football players to skip the workouts those coaches were doing.
Finally, in late September, FCPR settled on the three Frederick County schools. There weren’t too many spectators at Sherando last Wednesday, but it’s evident that people who don’t have close relationships with the players shouldn’t be showing up to the 7v7 sessions in order to keep the event attendance down.
Though no score was kept, last Wednesday’s action was entertaining.
The offenses controlled the action early in the competition, which did not involve defensive pass rushes. After the first possession failed to yield a touchdown, the offenses scored on the next four possessions, including a Warrior drive in which a wide-open Lawson caught a pass 15 yards downfield from junior quarterback Dylan Rodeffer and took it in for a 40-yard TD. (Millbrook had the first possession of the competition. Teams can get a first down at the 20-yard line.)
Sherando’s next possession ended when Lawson leaped but had the ball deflect off him and into the arms of a Millbrook player for an interception. But then two plays later, Lawson broke on a pass over the middle from Millbrook sophomore quarterback Detric Brown and intercepted it to stifle the Pioneer momentum, an impressive play that earned recognition from Haymore. Lawson responded with an “air high five” of his own.
“I should never make a mistake like that,” said Lawson of the dropped pass. “My motto is if it hits my hands, I should be able to catch it. But you can’t dwell on the past, and I was able to make a play.”
Brown made several nice throws. He’s looking to keep the Pioneer offense rolling with the graduation of record-setting quarterback Kaden Buza.
“I’ve been working really hard, and it’s just good to see what I can do in competition,” Brown said.
Each team had six possessions. Following six straight empty possessions between the two teams, Rodeffer connected with sophomore A.J. Santiago on a 20-yard TD pass on the final possession of the afternoon.
“That put us on the right track for the next week to get better,” Rodeffer said. “I don’t think we were perfect out there, but we use this as a way to improve ourselves.”
The league also provides a chance for everyone involved to learn. Often, coaches took time to give pointers and bring players together for a play call.
Basically, coaches could do things they wouldn’t get to do in a regular 7-on-7 competition.
“It’s about learning how to compete, and being coachable and learning on the fly,” Sherando coach Bill Hall said. “It’s being able to receive coaching and make those adjustments so you keep progressing from week to week.”
“This helps you correct kids and get them in the right place and make sure they’re ready for the season when it comes around,” Haymore said. “This is a great thing, and it’s a great thing for the kids to be able to do this.”
“Getting some communication and chemistry down is nice,” James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said. “There’s still a lot of learning left to do since we haven’t been able to do anything in a long time.”
Vitola said it helps to see progress.
“I noticed we really came together when we were running our routes. We were really disciplined with them, which was nice,” Vitola said. “Sometimes last year or the year before, say you have a 10-yard out, we might have run it eight yards or 12 yards. But we’re really sticking to the route concepts now.”
The prevailing theme is that’s it good to have some type of football activity this fall.
A recent study completed by a team of physicians, child health experts and researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that approximately 68 percent of the 3,243 student-athletes surveyed across the nation reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention, up 37 percent from past research studies, due to COVID-19 cancellations of youth sports.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Virginia is one of just 14 associations not playing tackle football this fall. It won’t be possible to do it at any time unless Virginia moves past Phase III of its COVID-19 guidelines.
“All research points right now to a large group that’s hit is your student-athletes in terms of mental health, just because they’re kids who are generally focused and goal-oriented and have destinations that are ahead of them,” Hall said. “This has been a really uncertain time where you don’t know what’s going to happen to the future.
“These are student-athletes that want to be recruited and go through that process, and there’s a lot of uncertainty there. I think it’s been important for us to keep in contact with our guys and hopefully give them outlets for ways they can continue to improve as they hope to play football [in February].”
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