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West Valley big men up for summer challenge

WEEKLY BLOG:  6/24/18

For much of the past month, high school football fans have been fixated with 7-on-7 passing tournaments.  The action can be intense, particularly without helmets and pads, and quarterbacks get some work in without the threat of a pass rush.

Several large competitions have taken place throughout the Valley, in Flagstaff, Tucson, and even with some schools traveling to San Diego.

But something is clearly missing.  The linemen.

Yes, they toil each and every Friday night rarely getting accolades (at least on the offensive side), but has there ever been a state champion that had a bad line?

Much of the video footage seen and articles written over the past four weeks have focused on the aerial game with touchdowns thrown and interceptions grabbed.  Heck, three weeks ago, I went to Peoria for an event and spent practically the entire evening on the passing side of things.  Never in my nine years of covering high school football, have I written an article featuring the guys in the trenches preparing for the upcoming season.

That changes today.

The biggest, the baddest, and the strongest in the West Valley make their way out to Desert Edge High School in Goodyear in the late afternoon and early evening each Wednesday in the month of June.  Now in its eighth year, the West Valley Linemen Challenge is unique for several reasons.

For starters, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  This competition doesn't just look at who was the best on a particular Saturday.  Points are tabulated over a four-week period.  Depth is necessary as some players may be attending college camps, on vacation, or recovering from injuries from week-to-week.

Buff squads from eight different schools (Desert Edge fields two teams) are up to the task competing in various events like tire flipping, an overhand rope pull, a two-man barbell, bench pressing, and running while carrying chains.

In addition to giving coaches a chance to evaluate players, there are reasons these competitions carry value.

"It allows your linemen to showcase their hard work over the summer since there are usually limited opportunities for them to do so," Desert Edge head coach Jose Lucero said in an e-mail interview.  "It allows them to compete against themselves, teammates, and opposing teams.  It also creates an opportunity for our linemen to demonstrate leadership."

Many times a coach is not following the linemen around from event to event, so the senior leaders have to steer the boat and keep the team rowing in the same direction.

While some of the events don't look similar to what a player would work on during a game week in September, strength, awareness, and conditioning levels are certainly tested.

"I believe it's a good tool to see how the kids compete and how much they push themselves," Cactus head coach Joseph Ortiz said in an e-mail interview.  "Some of the teams there we play in the regular season, so it's good to see how we're going to compete against those teams."

Ortiz is in his first year at Cactus as is Sean Freeman at Copper Canyon.  For them, it's an early chance to see what competition level the players will bring to the table.

"It's been great for us," Freeman said.  "It's built a positive vibe around our team.  It's brought a lot of pride being in the No. 1 spot heading into the last week."

Copper Canyon posted the highest point total in both Weeks 1 and 3 giving the Aztecs a slim three-point lead over Willow Canyon (which won Week 2).  This Wednesday will be the final three events, which will be worth double points in the sweltering heat.

There is a lot of planning involved in putting something like this together and Desert Edge's offensive line coach Trevor Chaco and defensive line coach Austyn Hull run the entire event.  They invited each of the schools and come up with enough different events to cover four weeks of competition.

One of the mysteries of the challenge is which events will be conducted from week to week.  The teams don't find out until they are at the event and instructions are given followed by a whistle being blown.  Tires might be stacked or a grueling obstacle course could be set up.  One time an event called the Atlas Stones was held.  It is often regarded as the signature event in the World's Strongest Man contest.

In each event, two teams are set up side-by-side to raise the level of competition.  While the points for all teams in the field are being scored, there is an extra level of adrenaline knowing that a fellow school is right next to you doing the same challenge.

In terms of translating these skills to Friday nights, Ortiz cited the relay races.  They show how the team works together for one common goal.

Freeman liked the bench press because during a play, the offensive line keeps its elbows in and presses off the chest much like they do with the 185-pounds of weight on the barbell.  Another interesting event was a tire-flip shuttle where players had to run back and forth flipping different tires over.  Freeman compared it to a two-minute drill where linemen sometimes have to hustle 20 yards downfield after a successful play and have to immediately get set up for the next snap.

Desert Edge has had some kids step up this month in the challenge.  The Scorpions currently sit in third with their A-team.

"Nassir Sims had a great performance in the 185-pound bench press competition (26 reps)," Lucero said.  "Ruiz Martinez has been a great leader for us and helped guide our group, and incoming freshman Gavin Broscious has performed very well in many events.  One overall key guy for us has been Max Garcia.  He is going to be a sophomore, but is very athletic, works hard, and steps up in key moments."

Desert Edge finished 7-4 last season in 5A and has to replace a pair of linemen that signed with New Mexico State (Max Wilhite and Austin Young).  The Scorpions have moved to the 4A West Valley Region for this two-year block.

"We've got a good offense this year," Sims told Just Chilly in his Sideline Vlog for Arizona Varsity.  "We've got good team chemistry.  I just want to work and show that I can bang with the best."

One of the schools DEHS will face this year in region play is Cactus (on Oct. 5 in Goodyear).  The Cobras were 9-3 last season and finished second in the region (to Sunrise Mountain).  Cactus is fifth in the standings through three weeks.

"Andrew Romero (senior center) has been awesome, hard working, and a leader," Ortiz said.  "Scott Mort (senior tackle) is the strongest out of the group with 25 reps on the bench.  Jon Buchanon (junior defensive tackle) is a very good athlete for his big frame."

Ortiz is bringing the fast-paced offense Higley fans watched generate video game-like numbers the past few seasons.  He was the offensive coordinator for the Knights.  The play of the line impacts how productive the offense can be.

"We move as fast as possible, but under control," Ortiz said.  "We go fast on offense, so the linemen always have to know their assignments."

Freeman said four players have been putting the team on their backs.  Center Gage Clem (28 reps on the bench), defensive tackle Julian Parker, offensive lineman Josh Kauffman, and offensive guard Joshua Fernandez have stood out for the Aztecs.

Copper Canyon equaled the most wins in a single season in 2017 with a 5-5 year.  This will be the 13th season for the 6A Southwest Region school in Glendale.  Freeman has plans for what he would like the team to do both offensively and defensively, but none of it will work without a strong line.

"That's the heart, especially when it comes to protection," Freeman said.  "(Running back) Josue Menjivar needs holes to run through.  On defense, we can't do much without putting pressure on the quarterback.  It shows the value of your offensive and defensive lines."

Freeman plans to boost camaraderie by having the entire team show up to support the Aztec big men in the finale on Wednesday.

With eight years of experience in hosting the event, Desert Edge has found what works and made it a great and worthwhile time for all teams involved.

"There are not a lot of big man leagues per se, like there are for 7on7, so to have this is a big help for our kids," Ortiz said.  "I'd like to thank Jose Lucero for putting on a well-run event!"

"I just hope it keeps going and gets bigger," Freeman said.  "It's a great opportunity for kids to show what they can do."

"Each year it has grown bigger and bigger and we hope to continue its expansion and get more teams on the West Side involved," Lucero said.

Below is the table of the first three weeks of scoring.  To get the final results, follow the West Valley Big Man Challenge on Twitter @WVBMChallenge.



PHOTO CAPTIONS:  (TOP) Colton Lawrence of Cactus totes the weight during the Farmer's Carry at the West Valley Big Man Challenge in Goodyear.  The exercise can improve grip strength, gain muscle, get the heart rate going, and help get stronger. (BOTTOM) Copper Canyon senior lineman Josh Kauffman lifts the dumbbell from a table before running and placing it in a hoop during the obstacle course.  The Aztecs begin the 2018 season on Aug. 24 with a home game against Liberty in Glendale.


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