Mars players, coaches find benefits in Pitt's 7-on-7 camp
The Mars football team hopes to reload rather than rebuild.
However, after losing a bevy of seniors from last season, defending the WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference title is no sure thing for the Planets.
Mars head coach Scott Heinauer and his assistants know that's the case every year, which is why they continue to have their players hone their skills in the summer.
The workouts are voluntary and low-key, but that didn't stop the Planets from participating in one high-profile event — Pitt's 7-on-7 team passing camp on June 22 and 23.
It was the second year the team took part in the competition, which has grown into one of the region's premier offseason events.
“We were there last year, and we all thought it was a good experience,” Heinauer said.
“I know our kids enjoyed doing it. I know they will enjoy doing it next year. We learn a lot as coaches and the players learn. There were 40-some teams there, and you're able to get a good look at some kids from some different teams; you get a little look at what they can and cannot do.”
The camp, which drew high school squads from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia, offers a unique offseason competition. It gives players a chance to be seen by Pitt's coaching staff and experience a college atmosphere at the Panthers' UPMC South Side facility.
“I am not big on going away to a whole lot of places,” Heinauer said.
“I think you have enough competition and good teams here in the WPIAL that we don't need to go out somewhere far away. I am sure the kids want to go out of town, but I like to have kids sleeping in their own beds. I think it's just better.
“It was two long days, but a great bonding experience for our kids down there. They learn they really have to depend on one another. We took 20 kids down and they all got an equal opportunity to play. It's not about winning and losing; it's about getting your kids ready to play.”
The Planets went 7-3 at the camp and were eliminated in the semifinals.
All teams at the camp are grouped together — regardless of classification — into four divisions with a double-elimination format in effect on the camp's second day.
“That's pretty good for a team that doesn't throw the ball,” Heinauer said.
“We don't have five-wide receiver-type sets; we have more of a running game than a passing game. We throw the ball, but not every down. Overall, I was pleased with what our kids accomplished there.”
On the first day, Mars beat Peters Township, Plum, East Allegheny and Perry Traditional Academy and lost to Woodland Hills. The Planets beat Neshannock, Elizabeth Forward and North Hills on the second day, but lost to Kirtland, Ohio, and Indiana in overtime in the semifinals.
Games are 30 minutes long with a running clock. Each team begins an offensive possession on the 40-yard line and has four downs to reach the 20. Once there, they have four more downs to score. Linemen are not involved, and the players wear helmets and no other pads.
“It's an unrealistic situation because it's geared toward the passing game; winning games and losing games there has no direct bearing on how the season is going to be,” Heinauer said.
“You need to see how your quarterback fares, and we have a three-year starter (Owen Nearhoof) back, so that is a big factor. You need to find kids who can catch the ball or kids who can run routes or see what they need to work on.
“On the defensive side, you get to see about covering man-to-man or zone; you can see if some things are working or not. You can't run man-to-man all day long. You have to mix up things and try to disguise some things and try to confuse the quarterback. I think we did very well.”
While the Pitt camp was a unique experience, 7-on-7 passing scrimmages are a regular part of Mars' offseason. The Planets take on local schools in weekly passing encounters. And, again, the teaching/evaluation is more important to Heinauer and his coaches than anything else.
“When the scores start to go in the paper, then it becomes important,” he said.
Mars' offseason program of weight lifting, on-field drills and passing scrimmages is beneficial and hard work for the Planets, but not overly demanding.
“A lot of schools go from 8 a.m. until noon every day. We're not like that, and I don't think that's necessary to win games,” Heinauer said. “We don't want to burn out the kids. Everyone has his own philosophy.
Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.