It's the cool thing to do during a heat wave. It's growing wildly despite a drought. So add the zing of a spiral and the smack of a ball hitting a receiver's hands to the sounds of summer on Long Island. Are you ready for some 7-on-7 football?
"It's humongous. Seven-on-seven is the 'it' thing," Sayville coach Rob Hoss said of the no-blocking, no-tackling, no-running offseason craze.
He credits the summer competitions with helping his quarterbacks pass for more than 4,000 yards the past two seasons.
The proliferation of spread offenses has placed more emphasis on precision passing games and created more need for quarterbacks and receivers to hone their skills and timing before the official start of football practice, this year on Aug. 16.
Russ Cellan of Freeport, considered the founding father of the spread offense on Long Island, noted the defensive benefits. "Seven-on-sevens aren't only for the offense. It's for our defense, too," Cellan said. "We're playing against so many spread offenses now that it helps them get ready for the season by playing against the spread in the summer."
Even teams that don't feature much of a passing game find great benefits in 7-on-7 football. "Because we're a running team, this helps us to work on our pass defense," Hauppauge coach Joe Patrovich said. "Everybody else is in the spread now, so even though we're not, we get to see it and defend it."
Similarly, Sachem East coach Brian Harvey likes the fact that his running team "gets to practice against a gamut of offenses. Without a doubt, this helps our defense. But ultimately, it's the camaraderie and getting the kids involved in something positive over the summer that's most important. The kids love it. The coaches love it. That's why we're here."
Head coaches and their assistants get a jump on the season, all within the rules, because the 7-on-7s are not mandatory and not exclusive. Any student can participate, not just football players. No one can get cut from a 7-on-7 team, nor can players be penalized for not attending.
From Freeport to Farmingville and all across Nassau and Suffolk, football has become a summer game.
A typical week for Roosevelt is Monday at St. Anthony's, Tuesday at Freeport, Wednesday at Oceanside. Floyd travels to Sachem East on Wednesday nights, where there might be three or four other schools in attendance.
"Basketball is all year long. Lacrosse is all year long. They can play games. We can't play games all year long in football. This is the closest we get," Floyd coach Paul Longo said. "We go 7-on-7 and it gives us something to do in the offseason. It keeps the kids sharp and gets them to compete a little bit. We don't have spring football so it gives us something to keep the kids thinking about football."
In addition to the weekday events at various schools, there are three major events on the summer circuit that involve dozens of schools. Bay Shore hosted in late June. St. Anthony's hosted on July 17, and the largest competition of the summer was held July 24 at Stony Brook University. Scores are kept, champions are crowned and, in the case of the St. Anthony's event, money was raised for the Lauren's First and Goal Foundation for pediatric brain tumor research.
St. Anthony's coach Rich Reichert had two teams entered in last weekend's event, but he didn't coach either one directly because he was the tournament's coordinator. Dressed in white shorts and shirt to weather the oppressive heat and humidity, Reichert patrolled the spacious St. Anthony's campus in a golf cart, clipboard in hand, making sure the right teams were playing each other, that results were recorded and that players, coaches and officials had plenty of water.
Reichert also kept an eye on the progress of his quarterback, Charlie Raffa, who has the difficult task of replacing All-Long Island star Tom Schreiber.
"There's no pressure here, but it's definitely an evaluation process for the coaches," Reichert said. "It's a way of helping your skill kids and it certainly helps to take a look at your quarterback."
Raffa, resting between games with an ice pack on his shoulder, said he learned a lot watching Schreiber play last year and is using the 7-on-7s to prepare for running the Friars' potent but complex option attack.
"Timing is everything with our offense," Raffa said. "You have to know which receiver is open and where he is on the field. There's so much you need to know - 10 different things in two seconds. It's all based on the reads. That's why I need to do it over and over."
New quarterbacks often benefit most from the 7-on-7s, getting a chance to learn the offense and work on the chemistry with their receivers. Raffa, at least, was a backup quarterback last year. Amityville's Willie White was a game-breaking wide receiver and Roosevelt's Donte Colter was a 1,000-yard tailback. Both will be running quarterbacks in 2010, and both worked up a serious sweat trying to soak up as much knowledge as they could at St. Anthony's.
"It's a matter of making my reads," White said. "I played quarterback in ninth grade, so I already know most of the receivers and at least I know the routes."
Colter acknowledged, "I have to work on a lot of different things - my reads, throwing the ball and running the ball from a different spot."
In moving the explosive Colter from tailback to quarterback and mixing in a little spread formation, Roosevelt coach Joe Vito said he's using the 7-on-7s to tinker.
"It's a little like Frankenstein in the lab,'' he said. "You can experiment and fool around with the kids in different spots. But with no risk."
Despite missing a prime beach or pool day like the hundreds of other players who were at St. Anthony's, Colter insisted, "It's fun. We've got a lot to learn, but it's more fun to learn it this way, in competition."
The competitive aspect is a major reason for the widespread popularity of summer 7-on-7s, which have reached state-tournament status in football-mad regions such as Texas. Coaches agree that when you keep score, you keep the kids interested and motivated.
"Going against other people, the kids love it," Vito said. "There aren't a lot of things that can get the kids up early on a Saturday morning in the summer, but they'll get up for this."