News Article

Is Arizona Ending the Off Season for High School Sports?

Published on: 2017-03-11 11:01:20

Mesa Desert Ridge football coach Jeremy Hathcock envisions winter and spring months of 7-on-7 passing league games and tournaments that culminate in the summer with a state championship held at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

"I would help lead the charge," Hathcock said.

It could happen as soon as the start of the next academic year if the Arizona Interscholastic Association legislative council on Friday votes yes on a proposal from state-wide administrators on giving high school coaches in all sports control of their kids in the offseason.

The proposed bylaw would no longer restrict the high school coach on what can be done in the offseason with their teams, with the exception in football. Football coaches still won't be able to outfit their players in helmets and shoulder pads. But endless 7-on-7 games can now be ramped up.

Reviews on this proposal are mixed with some feeling it will lead to burnout and coaches hoarding athletes, while others feel it will curtail potential recruiting from other high schools and help in the battle with club coaches, many of whom believe the kids' best interests aren't being considered.

"I do not think it will accomplish what they want it to do," Chandler Hamilton Principal Ken James said. "I think a lot of athletes will continue to participate in their club sports.

"This may end up hurting multi-sport athletes. Unfortunately, athletes may feel they have to participate in out-of-season practices, instead of participating in another sport."

A main reason for moving in this direction is coaches feeling a loss of control in the advent of club sports and how 7-on-7 all-star teams from various schools are taking off.

Phoenix Pinnacle football coach Dana Zupke said he thinks the rule represents that the AIA understands the coaches' loss of control.

"Football is really the only major sport not dominated by clubs," Zupke said. "However, with the increasing prevalence of year-round 7-on-7, this could be shifting. I have college coaches telling me stories of dealing with 7-on-7 coaches when it comes to recruiting certain skilled athletes in other parts of the country, likening them to 'street agents.'

"Unfortunately, naive parents are driving this new economy of experts – trainers, recruiting services, 7-on-7 coaches. Parents are being sold that this is what they have to do to get their kids exposure. This comes at the expense of the high school coach who typically has the best interests of the student-athlete at heart. The question comes down to who is the better influence on the student-athlete? The club guy/trainer, who has a direct financial interest in that individual? Or the high school coach, who has a greater interest in development of the person?"

Hathcock said he wouldn't make a kid feel he has to be committed full-time, year-round to football if he wants to play another sport, such as blue-chip freshman defensive end Jason Harris, who also is one of the state's top freshman basketball players.

Hathcock, however, feels there are some club coaches who are simply trying to make a buck off of a kid, whereas the high school coach can maintain an objectivity and realistic view for kids.

"I tell them, 'Go play basketball, have fun, enjoy your sport, and if you have time to play a (7-on-7) game, come play,' " Hathcock said. "I don't think it's any added pressure. Football has never been year-round. If a kid wants to go camping with his parents, where do we draw the line?"

Zupke, who coached his son in football at Pinnacle, and has been on both sides of the issue, said it will be up to the coach to make sure there is balance and to promote other sports.

"This rule comes with responsibility of high school coaches to work with the other sports in sharing of those athletes," he said. "Some coaches may see this rule as an opportunity to hoard their best athletes. In my opinion, any coach who is not willing to share his athletes or just certain ones is doing that kid a disservice."

Pinnacle sophomore Spencer Rattler is one of the top recruited quarterbacks in football in the West. He also is a good guard on the basketball team. He juggles both sports with the support of his coaches.

This spring, Gilbert Perry 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior quarterback Brock Purdy gave up baseball to focus on football, a sport he emerged in last fall when he threw for 3,333 yards and 42 touchdowns and made azcentral sports' All-Arizona team. He also became one of three finalists for the Big Schools Football Athlete of the Year that will be named on April 30.

Purdy went to Las Vegas last weekend and led Valor Elite, comprised primarily of Perry players, to a fifth-place finish among 136 teams in the Pylon Vegas 7-on-7 passing tournament. He said he tries to find breaks and balance. He will throw three times a week to strengthen his arm and to maintain timing with receivers. Between those days, he rests the arm and does agility and speed work.

"It's the offseason for a reason, so taking breaks is important, especially for us high school athletes, because we are still growing and are young," Purdy said. "But at the same time, it's time to get stronger and faster for the upcoming season."

Prince Johnson, a Perry parent, put together the Valor Elite team, mainly to give kids like Purdy a chance at receiving scholarship offers. This was the first national tournament for this team, Johnson said, adding that Purdy shredded a Las Vegas Bishop Gorman-based team.

"We know what the kid can do," Johnson said. "We try to get him as much exposure as possible, to help people notice. For some reason, the attraction is not getting there.

"(The Perry coaches) are supportive of what we do. We don't overstate our bounds. Kids don't miss school. When you've got a kid who is all-state first team and throws over 3,000 yards and missed three games, who is a phenomenal athlete, my goal is to try to help this kid get out of high school, open the door. The door was open (last) weekend."

John Ortega, a basketball club coach for Powerhouse Hoops, said, "Love or hate AAU basketball, it's a necessary evil to get Arizona players recruited."

"If (high school) coaches want to skill develop and weight train year-round, while continuing to allow club coaches the ability to practice and get players to exposure events, it could work well," Ortega said. "The AIA will be shocked when top players choose AAU over high school, but it's moving that way. I have four players right now debating skipping high school season next year to train, because they feel it would better prepare them for college than the Arizona season."

Ortega said the Powerhouse program is comprised of several high school coaches.

"We've tried to establish great relationships with coaches and work together with them," he said. "It's really been a huge part of our success. We've also reached out and done many free skills academies at high schools around the Valley. We feel we can truly provide the exposure Arizona players need but unlike other AAU programs we are academy and skill development based. We're about growing a better player, as well as getting them recruited."

Phoenix St. Mary's football coach Tommy Brittain feels the rule will become motivation for high school athletes to become a one-sport specialist too early in life.

"Even now, the pressure to devote oneself to a single sport by participating in club basketball or club baseball or club softball or club volleyball or club soccer is very strong," he said. "Many great athletes are convinced by myopic coaches that their only hope for athletic scholarships in college is by entirely devoting themselves to one sport throughout these precious high school years of competition.

"If coaches are granted permission to not merely cajole their athletes to join club teams but can actually legally conduct practices all year long, then the number of premature high school specialists will surely grow, and that is bad for high school athletics and bad for high school athletes. High school coaches need a respite from the intense demands of their sport and high school athletes should get to be kids and experience the joy of competing in multiple sports."

Chandler Principal Larry Rother believes the proposed bylaw amendment ultimately is a good thing.

"The bylaw as it’s written is outdated and our student-athletes are already participating in club/AAU sports," he said "This amendment will essentially allow our coaches to work with our student-athletes and help them develop their skills during the offseason. In (the Chandler Unified School District), our football coaches have already begun the process of developing consistency as it pertains to offseason schedules and building in downtime to avoid burnout.

"Ultimately, this is a good thing for the Arizona athletics as long as coaches still provide students with time away from the sport and encourage multi-sport participation, if that’s what the student-athlete chooses."

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