Passing Leagues: : Where Quarterbacks Are Born and Teams Learn Togetherness

Times Staff Writer

The games aren't exactly played in ideal football conditions. Even at 9 a.m., the temperature at Valley College is a sultry 85 degrees. There are just a handful of spectators, not a bouncy cheerleader in sight and no bands to fire up the teams.

But don't get the idea that the high school summer passing league games that span Southern California are meaningless exercises.

Far from it.

Summer passing leagues are where the quarterbacks of tomorrow are born.

"Our last four quarterbacks have received scholarships to Division I schools (major colleges)," said Muir Coach Jim Brownfield.

Many Surprises

And, according to Brownfield, not one of the four was a quarterback entering passing leagues. One, Mark Hatcher, was a soccer player whom Brownfield was thinking about using as a punter until he saw him throw a football.

The four--Hatcher, Richard Bell (Nebraska) Dee Dee Moore (Washington State) and James Burton (Oregon State)--developed into outstanding quarterbacks because of passing leagues, Brownfield contends.

Especially Hatcher.

A sophomore-to-be at the University of Colorado, Hatcher will battle for starting quarterback in the fall. The 19-year-old said he owes most of his success to Brownfield and the experience of playing in many passing league games.

"Passing leagues definitely help you," said Hatcher, who led the Mustangs to two Pacific League titles before graduating in 1984. "You get better and better each time you play. You gain more confidence by watching your receivers play and seeing how they run their patterns."

20,000 Passes

Born on a Carson summer practice field about 15 years ago, summer passing games have become a football institution in Southern California. Some high schools play 40 summer passing games, equivalent to about four football seasons. A quarterback can throw about 20,000 passes during the summer.

"It's valuable because it helps develop your quarterback," said Whittier Christian Coach Tom Caffrey. "It gives him like another season to practice his passing."

But to La Mirada Coach Ray Mooshagian, summer leagues mean more than just the development of a quarterback.

"We feel it is an integral part of our team," Mooshagian said. "You're getting a certain amount of togetherness and learning to play as a team."

The most popular of the summer passing programs is a tournament rather than a league--the L. A. Summer Games in late June. This year about 1,200 players from 64 teams in the CIF and City participated in the 18th Summer Games, won by Muir.

Loosely Structured

Most summer passing games and leagues are loosely structured. Played mostly during July and early August, the games are organized by coaches in their respective areas. Coaches usually also serve as officials and timekeepers.

Helmets, pads and contact are forbidden in the games, which are one-hand touch instead of tackle. Players usually wear jerseys, shorts and cleats.

Although no contact is allowed in the 7-against-7 competition, play is intense, but injuries are few. Sprains, jammed fingers and muscle pulls usually are the most serious injuries.

"We try to keep it low-key," said Caffrey, whose Whittier Christian team is two-time defending Inland Conference champion and winner of 20 consecutive games dating to the 1983 season.

Summer passing leagues are definitely for the those who love offense. Offenses line up with a center, quarterback, two halfbacks and three receivers. Most defenses are composed of three linebackers and four defensive backs.

No Pass Rush

No linemen, other than the center, are involved. Because of that, there is no pass rush. In order to simulate game pressure, quarterbacks are allowed 3.5 seconds to release the ball or it is considered a sack.

Games usually last one hour, with each team getting three downs to make a first down or score a touchdown. There are no kickoffs or punts and only a few running plays are permitted in most games.

These simulated-game laboratories allow coaches to experiment and discover players. This is the time when unknowns become starting players.

At Muir High of Pasadena, for example, Hatcher was a punter entering his junior year until Brownfield discovered his passing arm. This year, senior James Dunn, a backup receiver, probably will be Muir's signal caller. He threw five touchdown passes in Muir's first contest in the L. A Summer Games against Eagle Rock.

North Torrance receiver Joe Olson was also just another player trying to earn a place on the varsity several years ago until he blossomed in summer passing games. He became an All-Ocean League receiver in his senior year, with 38 receptions for a 20.8-yard average and eight touchdowns.

Just 'a Nobody'

"He was a nobody as a sophomore," says North Torrance Coach Steve Schmitz. "He may have never gotten noticed if it wasn't for the summer passing leagues. He came on to be a two-year starter."

Olson is not the only summer passing league success story at North Torrance. Schmitz attributed the development of Saxon quarterback Neal Maeyama, the 1984 Ocean League player of the year, to passing leagues.

"If it wasn't for summer passing leagues, he probably wouldn't have been the player he was," said Schmitz, whose team finished with a 7-2-2 record last year. "He just got better and better and better."

Maeyama, described by Schmitz as a player with "average ability," completed about 60% of his passes for nearly 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior year.

"The games helped me recognize defenses better," said Maeyama. "You also get to know your receivers and learn whom to throw to. It helped me a lot."

Betty Blossomed

Mooshagian said the passing league helped develop La Mirada standout quarterback Stuart Betty, who paced the 13-1 Matadors to the Central Conference finals by passing for 2,137 yards and 28 touchdowns in his final year.

"He (Betty) threw the ball a lot and it definitely helped him," said Mooshagian. "He gained a great deal of confidence and experience through the passing leagues. If it hadn't been for the passing league, he wouldn't have been playing varsity."

Passing leagues result in Southern California producing the country's best athletes in skill positions, according to Banning Coach Chris Ferragamo. Banning was runner-up in the 1984 City championship and won the 1984 L. A Games summer passing tournament. "It's programs like this that produce the best athletes in Southern California. These things help kids."

Carson Coach Gene Vollnogle started what is generally considered California's first passing league in 1970. It began as a way to get around City football rules governing summer practices.

In its infancy, the game utilized a 4-on-4 format, with a quarterback and three receivers.

"We're at the point where it's very similar to a regular game," said Vollnogle, whose team plays most of its passing games in the spring rather than summer.

Passing leagues have paid dividends for Carson, Vollnogle says. Carson was the 1984 City champion.

Helps in the Fall

"There's quite a correlation between winning passing leagues and being City champs," said Vollnogle. "If you go far in the passing leagues, the chances are you'll go far in the playoffs."

Many, but not all, coaches agree with Vollnogle's hypothesis.

Santa Monica Coach Tebb Kusserow said there is no correlation between passing leagues and the regular season. Santa Monica won the Bay League title last year and finished with a 10-2 overall record.

"You can be lured into the idea that what happens in the passing leagues happens at game time. But it's only one phase of an entire football concept," said Kusserow. "Just because you do well in the summer doesn't mean you'll do well in the fall. Passing is just one facet of football; it isn't the whole game. And if you think it is, you're wrong."

While Kusserow might not believe in some passing league philosophies, he does think that players benefit from the experience. This summer, Santa Monica will play 11 games. He said he uses the passing league as a learning environment for his players.

Coach 'in the Action'

"It gives you an opportunity to teach your players in a competitive situation," said Kusserow. "Unlike a game in the fall where a coach stays on the sidelines, away from the players, the passing leagues put you right there, in the action. You can diagram plays, talk to them and teach them."

St. Francis Coach Terry Terrazone doesn't place much emphasis on passing leagues. His team uses an option-quarterback offense with the emphasis on running.

"They (passing games) are not realistic," said Terrazone. "But it's as realistic as you can get during the summer. In terms of preparation for the season, you don't get a whole lot out of it."

Without contact and a pass rush, Terrazone believes passing games fail to offer a fair representation of what can happen during the season.

"A quarterback doesn't earn his keep until there's a rush," said Terrazone, who has been coaching at St. Francis of La Canada for 13 years. "It's easy to play against time. Until you get hit in the back a few times, you just don't know.

"You might have a great quarterback and receiver and might do well in the summer. But during the season, you might not have the good line and everytime you drop back to pass, you get sacked."

Defenses also profit from summer passing leagues.

Under constant pressure to contain the free-passing offenses without the benefit of a neutralizing pass rush, linebackers and defensive backs have a tough job.

"It's a difficult situation for them," said Caffrey. "They're put to the test in the passing leagues, more than they are during the season."

Said Schmitz, "There's a million different things that the players learn that you don't have to teach in the fall."

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