NEW CANAAN — In the eyes of football purists, 7-on-7 passing camps couldn’t be further from the real thing.
“It’s a little bit different because you’re not hitting anybody, there’s no rush on the quarterback and your wide receivers run undefeated,” the state’s co-winningest high school football coach, Lou Marinelli, said prior to this weekend’s festivities at Dunning Field.
Marinelli, who’s guided New Canaan to four consecutive state titles, went so far as to say “7-on-7 isn’t football.”
Nevertheless, the Grip It and Rip It Tournament, which wrapped up its 10th year of existence Saturday, has become one of the most anticipated events of the offseason for high school teams looking for a boost on offense.
“It’s become so much a part of every team’s offseason regimen,” Greenwich coach and tournament director John Marinelli said.
The inaugural tournament featured only four teams and served as nothing more than a dress rehearsal for New Canaan before a trip to another passing camp in Alabama. Little did anyone know that seven years later, the field would expand to 40 teams and include, for the first time, a school from Canada.
That number was expected to grow this year, however, construction on the fields adjacent to Dunning Field forced the tournament to be trimmed to 16 teams, including seven from the FCIAC. Over 30 teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Canada were turned away.
“It’s remarkable to see when 10 years ago, you’re begging teams to go,” John Marinelli said. “Now teams are begging to play. It’s been a complete 180.”
In the 14 years since John Marinelli played quarterback at New Canaan, the 7-on-7 camps have grown in popularity not just in Connecticut, but nationwide. USA Football is holding four national 7-on-7 events this month, the first of which took place this weekend in Santa Ana, Calif.
“We had to go to California to do 7-on-7’s,” he recalled. “That’s how non-existent it was in this area. … This is football’s way of keeping kids involved.”
The passing camps have helped football keep pace with sports like basketball, soccer and lacrosse that offer opportunities year-round for athletes. They allow quarterbacks to get valuable reps and build camaraderie with their receivers without the fear of a pass rush.
As far as coaches are concerned, the importance of that extra work can’t be understated.
“If you didn’t pick up a lacrosse stick the entire offseason and then expected to walk onto the field the third week of March … you’d be in trouble,” Darien coach Rob Trifone explained.
The CIAC prohibits coaches from participating in the passing camps, however, many coaches believe there are long-lasting benefits in letting their quarterbacks call the shots for a change.
“I think it helps them strategy-wise,” St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “They’re doing everything on their own without somebody guiding them. It gives them a little sense of ownership of the team.”
Coaches want to see their quarterbacks take charge, but they’re careful not to put too much stock into glorified games of two-hand touch.
“If you can’t block people and give your quarterback time, it’s not going to matter anyways,” Lou Marinelli said.