When a couple of hundred high school football players come to Hand this weekend, there will be a few goals on the table.
Most immediately, the goal is scoring enough points to win seven-on-seven games and move on to Saturday in the “Grip It and Rip It” playoffs. Beyond that, their coaches want them getting used to each other and perfecting the offense they’ll run in the fall.
If these tournaments turn out to be fun with a purpose, said a few local coaches, that’s perfect.
“It’s just a great two days,” Hand coach Dave Mastroianni said. “Really, in the grand scheme of things, the winner gets a T-shirt. There’s really nothing on the line other than let’s get out and play together. It’s good to see the kids get out, the sportsmanship in just going out to play. Kids don’t play a lot anymore.”
“Grip It and Rip It” has grown from a small 2007 gathering in New Canaan to a three-site, three-weekend event this summer. Hand is hosting its fourth straight event. A third event at Sports World in East Windsor begins this year, with entry fees of $500-600 depending on site for a six-game guarantee.
The seven-on-seven game is played on a 40-yard field, with some modified rules. There’s a center to snap the ball but otherwise no offensive line. Play stops on a defensive touch, so pads aren’t necessary, though helmets are required.
It’s a passing game.
“These days, you can’t really just wait until fall and start,” Fairfield Ludlowe coach Mitch Ross said. “The passing game has to be executed too well to (practice) two or three weeks in the fall and expect to run an offense. You need seven-on-seven to get it running perfectly.
“It’s more the learning experience rather than wins and losses.”
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said he remembers not all that long ago when the run game dominated high school football, not believing when he was told the shotgun and the spread would become the go-to offense. But that’s the kind of offense that seven-on-seven develops.
“You take all the concern over injuries, concussions, running the spread, statistically, there are less injuries involved,” Marinelli said. “You try to get your skilled athletes out on the grass and let them dance.”
Marinelli said Rams players participate in a similar program just about every weekend: one at Rutgers, one at Fordham, one at Stony Brook. They’ll take a few weeks off before practice starts for real.
Amity coach Craig Bruno estimated that his teams have taken part in around 100 seven-on-seven events, starting with one at Southern Connecticut State University in 2001, his first year as a head coach.
“They’ve definitely been prevalent my whole career,” he said. “They weren’t really around much when I was playing, ‘86, so in there, maybe,” they grew more popular in the area.
Ross said the Falcons will probably participate in three this summer. It’s competitive, “but for us, it’s a means to an end,” Ross said, “to get better as a team.”
The alternative before these programs was pretty much summer weightlifting and conditioning, the coaches said. Regulations against summertime coaching and practicing as a team limited the options.
“(Seven-on-seven) gave football the opportunity to do what every other sport can do,” Marinelli said. “Baseball has American Legion. Hockey has summer leagues, basketball.”
Grip It and Rip It, in which Marinelli’s son and former Greenwich coach John played a big part, draws many of the state’s top programs and, in New Canaan, some from out of state.
Camaraderie builds, Bruno said, and it’s a good chance to work on skill at the same time. And Mastroianni said relationships build among the coaches, too.
“We’re there. North Haven’s there,” Mastroianni said. “North Haven’s obviously not a passing team. We’re traditionally more of a power, rushing team. Are we going to win? Probably not. Greenwich, Darien, a lot of quality teams throw the ball for a living. But it’s good experience, hanging around in about 22-minute blocks and seeing the best the state has to offer.”
Mastroianni said he’d love to see more SCC teams involved, but this weekend’s event in Madison, which is free and open to the public, will include teams from the FCIAC, SWC, ECC and CCC.
“They don’t change the world. They’re not the end of the world,” Bruno said. “You get together and throw the football around.”