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Lucky 7: Vashon outlasts seven foes to take 7-on- 7 tourney

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Although they won't put on the pads and engage in traditional 11-on-11 scrimmages and drills until early next month, the Vashon Wolverines already can claim a couple of victories on and off the field before the high school football season commences. In a field of eight teams mostly from the inner-city of St. Louis, Vashon captured the first Lincoln University 7-on-7 tournament last weekend at the school's campus in Jefferson City, Missouri. Perhaps more importantly, three of Vashon's players were offered scholarships by the Lincoln staff, although NCAA rules restrict players from officially signing letters of intent until early February and college coaches from discussing recruits.

In any event, the Wolverines were the last team standing after turning back a late rally by the Gateway Stem (formerly Gateway Tech) Jaguars 18-16 to win the tourney. Vashon's Clifton Dickens, who was a second team all-conference quarterback, was chosen the tourney's Most Valuable Player for his play at quarterback and at defensive back, where he snared the game-saving interception, after the Jaguars had scored on a 40-yard bomb from quarterback Antonio Cunningham to Anton Garrett. Each team had three games of pool play, then teams were seeded according to their records and points scored, for a single elimination game after that, which enabled Vashon to avenge an opening round loss.

"We came out flat and lost to Gateway in the first game," noted Vashon assistant coach Brennan Spain. "We had a lot of players step up after that. Brandon Jones (the club's top returning receiver) did not play at all. We rested him (due to a muscle pull). We rolled without him."

Of course 7-on-7 is strictly a game of skill, finesse and agility, among other things, since there is no tackling , no pads and no offensive linemen participating, other than the center snapping the ball. Some football traditionalists may see it as glorified touch football since there is no overt contact or tackling, but the game has evolved into off-season showcase events in some states like Texas and California. Under Armour presents a summer annual National Select 7-on-7 championship in Hoover, Alabama with national hotel and restaurant chains as sponsors.Six points are awarded for a touchdown, two points for a conversion from 10 yards out and a point each for a five-yard conversion attempt following a touchdown or a defensive stop on third down.

Speaking of defense, that is a unit that both tournament finalists, Vashon and Gateway, have to improve dramatically from last season. As both clubs endured injuries to their units and had very challenging non-conference opponents, they were overwhelmed on the scoreboard: Vashon, which staggered to a 4-6 mark, surrendered 339 points while scoring 161. Meanwhile, Gateway struggled through a 3-8 mark while being outscored 305-188.

In capturing the 7-on-7 event, Markevion Darough, Nicholas Gordon, Ian Hines, Dahlen Jones, John Mitchell and twins Charvez and Charvon Lewis and Kevin Oliver were among the Wolverines key players Spain said. Lewis scored on a 20-yard catch down the middle of the field, Dahlen Jones on a post corner route and Mitchell on a dig route. Spain also said Dickens (6-2,170), Mitchell (6-1,175 receiver-defensive back) and Charvez Lewis were among those offered scholarships. The Blue Tigers head coach is former St. Louis Rams linebacker and Super Bowl hero, Mike "The Tackle" Jones.

Offensively, both clubs return talented quarterbacks. Clifton Dickens, of Vashon looked outstanding at times in passing for 1,279 yards but also struggled at various points in completing 71 of 151 passes for just 47 percent. Ferguson said sometimes his signal-caller put too much pressure on himself by trying to make the great plays. Dickens will have experienced receivers to aid his development, though: Brandon Jones is among the league's best, after catching 22 passes for 421 yards and seven touchdowns. Mitchell had just 10 receptions but for a whopping 290 yards, including a 59-yard scoring strike in a blowout loss to Career Academy, the two-time, defending Public High League champions.

But Vashon's skill-position players will go into the season like all the league teams, in taking a back seat to Career Academy's returning receivers and defensive backs: Javon Collard caught 16 passes for 543 yards and nine touchdowns, while Mark Frazier caught 19 for 398 yards and six touchdowns for the Phoenix. In the secondary, the Phoenix boasts safety Travis Riley, who had seven interceptions and seven defensive touchdowns overall from interceptions or kick returns, including an 85-yard kickoff return against the Wolverines in a 47-12 rout last season.

The Jaguars had three good receivers last weekend, though, in sophomore tight end Kenyon Perkins, senior Anton Garrett who caught a 40-yard touchdown from Cunningham and junior Donnell Williams, the latter of whom Gateway coach Jason Dulick said was also offered a scholarship a year early by the Blue Tigers staff. Dulick noted that Williams who is about 6-3,185 and also a basketball player, played on the junior varsity football squad last year before a knee injury cut short his season.

"SEMO (Southeast Missouri State University) and Lincoln University were impressed with him (Williams)," reports Dulick. "He is a very raw receiver but we are continuing to develop him."

For that matter, Dulick said his entire receiving corps is a work in progress not on a par yet with the league's top group.

"We've been working all summer and we are continuing to develop a couple of young receivers," he notes. "We definitely do not have the proven receivers that Vashon and Career Academy does."

But of course even 7-on-7 may not be able to simulate game speed or adrenaline once the pads come on. For PHL teams, the road to a conference championship will have to go through the Career Academy Phoenix's defense, which posted five shutouts last year and had the PHL's most prolific game-changer in Riley, who is back for his senior encore.Riley had 70 total tackles to go with his litany of momentum-killing plays he stuck on opposing teams.

"The kind of motivation I have is to make sure that I make everything tough for a wide receiver," says Riley."I make sure I work hard every play. Defensive backs have to win the battle between receivers and I try to make sure I win every one. Our defensive coach (Chris Cooper) makes sure he has the defensive backs ready to to be physical and in top condition. We like to do 1-one-1s in practice so we can get that practice in guarding receivers. We also do a lot of footwork drills that get us ready for ball games.

Excluding Riley and the Phoenix, the other participating teams in the event included last year's surprise PHL team, the Carnahan Cougars, who posted a 9-3 mark and won their first ever district championship. Although they graduated their great all-purpose quarterback in Dontrelle Busby (1,383 yards passing and 23 touchdown strikes to go with 910 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns of his own), they also return a big-play receiver in Eric Williams, who caught 22 passes for 563 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Confluence, Lift for Life, Normandy, Roosevelt and Sumner rounded out the eight-team bracket. As noted, the Phoenix did not participate in the event, as their coach Sorrell Harvey has favored other offseason activities to the 7-on-7 tournaments.But as Riley acknowledged that the team is definitely primed for another banner campaign after an 11-1 mark last year and a 25-22 state quarterfinal loss in which host Cape Girardeau Central had to rally late.

The Wolverines won an even larger, more prestigious tournament in the summer of 2012, when they won a 20-team St. Louis Metro-area event at DeSmet High, which featured a number of larger programs, including the host Spartans whom Vashon 28-14 in the championship game. As a consequence, the Wolverines eventually went into the season as the second-rank, small-school in the entire area, only to struggle to a losing mark after being decimated by injuries on defense and playing inconsistently on offense. In 7-on-7 the interior lines have no role, so blocking and tackling can't be evaluated in that setting. Likewise although quarterbacks have to get a play off within five seconds, it's difficult to judge just how a signal-caller will react to a conventional pass rush or blitz at least until team scrimmages or get jamborees underway. That's why Ferguson tried to put into perspective the preseason hype his team garnered in 2012 because he knew the real games were the true measuring stick of success.

"The high ranking and the publicity is great, but like I told the kids you still have to win the games," Vashon coach Reginald Ferguson would say later in that ill-fated 2012 season.

So to their credit, the Vashon coaches realize the offseason activities have to be viewed as a mere springboard for getting fine-tuned. In that regard, the 7-on-7 activity is providing opportunities for players to hone their game within the confines of the rules.

"It's been a good summer for us," says Spain. "We've also had a chance to see a lot of young guys step and develop."

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