Park City coaches see passing league as way to strengthen football community
Tackle football might seem like the ideal way to prepare middle schoolers for high school football, but a new program proposes just the opposite.
According to John McCurdy, Park City High School offensive coordinator, the trouble with youth tackle football is that it teaches kids to rely on power, which is a premium on Park City’s line. McCurdy said, for whatever reason, the Miners’ linemen are often outsized by 20-50 pounds, so the team often has to focus on passing to break through defenses, which is one reason why McCurdy and Tim Chesley, the owner of Chesley Electric and a sponsor of Park City Youth Football, spearheaded the Park City Passing League. True to its name, the league doesn’t ever run the ball.
“Tackle football is usually about getting the ball to your fastest kid and getting him around the corner and getting the touchdown,” McCurdy said, standing on the sidelines of Dozier Field during a set of games on Sunday. “This one, the whole idea is you’re going to have to pass it to other people, so they can’t cover one kid all the time. It spreads the ball around. … The skills you learn without tackle, it’s more applicable to what you’re going to be doing in high school.”
Last Sunday, like the five Sundays before it, Dozier Field was divided into quarters. Cones and ropes created a dividing corridor around the 50-yard line for coaches and referees to walk through, and cones bisected the field’s remaining halves from mid-line to end zone.
The Sunday-only league caters to fifth through ninth graders, with the youngest starting first at 1 p.m. when eight color-coordinated teams of five take the field. At the start of each play, four receivers and a quarterback line up behind a stool that holds the ball on a timer. When the quarterback picks up the ball, it starts the play clock, allowing four seconds for him or her to pass the ball to one of the receivers.
There is no rushing.
The rest is just like any other game of flag football. Every team is coached by a current or former PCHS student, and most of the teams are coached and refereed by PCHS football players, which is part of an intentional connection to the varsity team.
“The whole idea was for it to be a conduit between youth and high school football and to bring awareness to the sport and to show the mentoring of the high school kids,” said Chesley. “I think it’s going to change the culture and landscape in PC.”
Chesley hopes that by making the high school players more accessible to the younger players, the passing league will foster a sense of continuity and fandom — kids will look up to the current players, learn how to play the high school game, watch the high school games on weekends, and feel at home playing on Dozier Field. In return, the high schoolers will become invested in the younger generation’s success while honing their own sense of responsibility and earning $15 a game through the league, which is a nonprofit. According to McCurdy, the high school coaches are the only ones that get paid.
Joey Lukrich, a cornerback on the Miners varsity team, is one of those coaches.
“This is really cool, because none of us had (a league like this) growing up,” Lukrich said. “I mean, I wish I had it; it would have been really, really helpful.”
Lukrich said it took a lot of time and effort for him and his teammates to transition to the high school game. He had to develop skills he didn’t learn in a contact youth program, and learn a new style of defense. Now, he’s teaching those techniques to kids well before they get to high school. For example, the team he coaches primarily uses a cover 3 defensive formation, which is also used at the high school level.
Lukrich held out a packet of laminated plays – one that each coach was given at the beginning of the season — and flipped to a chart of the cover 3 defense.
“The two underneath guys take the short routes,” Lukrich said, pointing to a shaded oval on the chart. “But everything deep is the responsibility of the cornerbacks and a safety. You make it simple for the kids, but cover 3 is cover 3, and the kids are going to know what it is.”
On offense, McCurdy said kids are learning how to drop back as a quarterback, make passes quickly, how to run receiving routes and how to position their hands to catch..
Standing in the roped section along the 50-yard line, Josh Montzingo, the Miners varsity high school head coach, looked over the games. He said from the beginning he liked the idea.
“John asked me ‘Hey, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Whatever you need, I’ll be out here, I’ll help you out,’” Montzingo said. “I’m just kind of being around, letting the kids know someday we want them out here on Friday nights.”
Montzingo is a fan of fostering the connection between the youth program and the varsity players, and said he hoped the program would also bring in players that might have skipped football out of a reluctance to commit to the tackle game.
“It limits some of the fear from (contact),” he said. “So kids can come out and just be athletic and be skilled.”
Chesley said the program drew about 200 players for its inaugural game in April, and has consistently had around 60 per age group since. He suspects part of the reason is that there are no practices – just one game a week per team — so kids don’t get burnt out. He also suspects that the no-contact aspect draws in parents wary about concussions, though it pulls in contact players, too.
On the sideline, Rick Tabaracci, who has three kids in the program who all also play contact football, said it was more about an opportunity for the kids to learn a different side of the game.
“It’s that they get to focus on some of the specifics they will need when they are playing contact football,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt that they also enjoy playing in the passing league.
“They love it, and they’re having a blast,” he said. “ They’re looking forward to it every weekend. I’m sure this will continue for years and years to come. It’s been a great experience for the kids.”
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