July 14, 2013

More than football

Teammates bond during Southeastern 7-on-7 tournament

Devin Golden

— It’s common for high school football coaches to tout the competition aspect as one of the main reasons for participating in seven-on-seven tournaments during the summer.

With the first game and opponent still weeks away, the non-contact version of the game offers them a chance to break out of offseason training mode, work toward a common goal and polish some of their on-the-field skills in the process.

However, for some high school teams in this weekend’s Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship, it isn’t all about on-the-field stuff — but that doesn’t mean the tournament is any less important to making them better.

“The kids love it,” Paoli coach Brian Balsmeyer said. “They get to bond with one another and they also get away from what they know back home. A lot of these kids don’t know much outside of their hometown.”

Several teams made lengthy trips to Dalton for the third annual edition of The Daily Citizen’s two-day tournament, which is sponsored by AstroTurf. Saturday’s action included 40 teams from 35 schools — five had a “B” team in the field — competing in pool play, with the top four teams in each pool advancing to today’s championship bracket play and the others moving into the consolation bracket.

The tournament resumes at 8:30 a.m., and the double-elimination format concludes at 4:30 p.m. with each bracket’s final. Championship bracket games will be held at the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department’s James Brown Park, adjacent to the DPRD’s John Davis Recreation Center at 904 Civic Drive, while consolation bracket games will be at the Mack Gaston Community Center at 214 Fredrick St. in Dalton.

Of the schools in the tournament, five are from Whitfield or Murray counties, 13 others are from Georgia and five are from Tennessee. For the rest, competing — and winning — is nice, but for some of them, there are added incentives to leaving the comforts of home. It could be going to see a movie during down time before the tournament, hanging out together in the hotel room or laying underneath the team tent in between a long summer Saturday of football games.

Jackson coach Brent Eckley said his team began its six-hour trip from southeastern Missouri early Saturday morning. That cut back on the number of nights staying in a hotel, but he still thinks the team will be closer on the drive home.

“It’s still a really neat thing because we get to spend all day today together,” Eckley said. “This isn’t the whole team, just part of it. (But) for the guys here, it’s good for them to build camaraderie with one another. Another good thing for me is it’s a chance to get to know the parents and for them to get involved.”

Balsmeyer said his school is in a “poor county.” Orange County, in the southern tip of Indiana, has been troubled by “high unemployment.”

“We go to this team camp in Bloomington (Ind.) (at the end of June) and stay in a hotel room. The kids like it,” he said. “But we have guys 15, 16 and 17 years old who’ve never stayed in a hotel room before. I find that amazing. It’s an experience. That’s what we try to do with our program, get them out doing things they normally wouldn’t do with their families.”

It was a six-hour drive for Balsmeyer’s Rams to reach Dalton on Friday. The team spent the day together at a shopping center and then saw a movie. It’s all part of getting the players away from their “comfort zone,” Balsmeyer said.

“These trips are good for us because we spend a lot of time together,” said Evan Jones, a Paoli senior defensive back. “Hanging out like this gets us closer for the season.”

Scotlandville, located in Baton Rouge, La., used to have an offseason camp off of its campus, but coach Eric Randall said funding cuts prevented that from happening this summer. The nine-hour drive to Dalton is the biggest team-building event the Hornets will have.

“I think it gives your an opportunity to spend some time like you would if you were in college,” Randall said.

Scotlandville senior running back Dontrell Hilliard doesn’t view a trip like this as a way to “force” the Hornets to get closer. However, he knows he’ll interact with teammates he might not otherwise.

“It gives me a chance to get to know other teammates and other faces and also get yourself known,” Hilliard said.

But in the time of social media, text messaging and smart phones, it is becoming a bit more difficult to channel that team-building environment among teenagers, Eckley said.

“At any point and time, if you feel uncomfortable, you can reach into your pocket and check to see if someone texted you, or check the weather or check Twitter,” Eckley said. “It’s easier than face to face to just pop out (your phone). But we have good kids and they’re fairly tight anyways.”

Said Balsmeyer, “I say it all the time, ‘I’ll have to give you a dang phone so you can check coverages and things because you won’t talk. You’ll sit there on a bus and instead of talking to a guy (sitting next to you), you’ll text him.’”

While coaches may not be able to force closeness, the combination of competition and a road trip seems to create a better chance of it happening.

“To travel for so long and spend time in a hotel, all of that is meaningful and you communicate more and hopefully can convert that to on-the-field success,” Randall said. “In the future, we’ll do some type of trip in the summer time to get the quarterbacks to throw and do the same team-building things.”