GBAC

Notre Dame Prep football coach George Prelock said this was the first time things truly feel like they have returned to normal after the pandemic. He enjoyed being able to compete on a large stage at the GBAC tournament with his team over Memorial Day weekend. (Dave Minton/Progress Staff)

High school football programs from all over the East Valley and state have begun the transition from spring to summer, with team workouts on a near daily basis and various 7-on-7 and big man tournaments.

These events, typically held at various high schools, have exploded in popularity in recent years with local colleges jumping on board to host high school programs. The summer circuit of tournaments helps teams prepare for the full season in the fall. It builds team chemistry. It allows quarterbacks and receivers to work on timing and defenses to play fast and quickly recognize an opposing offense.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on all the tournaments in 2020 and most last year. But they’re now back in full swing. And it started in Mesa on Memorial Day weekend with the Gotta Believe Athletic Club’s annual high school championships.

“From a high school perspective running this tournament with the guys we have involved, it’s the best,” Mesa coach and founder of Gotta Believe Athletic Club Chad DeGrenier said. “IT’s been nice to see the competition, the sportsmanship, all those things that kinda got lost but hopefully it’s all coming back to center.”

DeGrenier is in his 12th year hosting the camp. In previous years, it was held at Fear Farm in the West Valley or Scottsdale. This year, however, he aimed to show off the upgrades to Mesa’s athletic facilities.

Some pool play games were played on Mesa’s new turf field. The big man competition was held on the football team’s practice field just behind the east bleachers. Other games took place on the baseball fields.

“It’s really just great to be out here, especially after the last couple of years,” Notre Dame coach George Prelock said. “You see a lot of mental health problems with kids. Sports, I think, are a good help for that. It’s nice to see people out, it’s nice to see college coaches come out and just see smiles on everyone’s face. These kids deserve to have a great experience.”

This summer for football programs presents even more of a return to normalcy. Last year, restrictions were lifted and programs were virtually allowed to conduct business as usual.

Some 7-on-7 tournaments, including the one hosted by GBAC, returned. But colleges, most notably ASU, still held off from catering to high school football programs.

Prelock said even lest year things didn’t feel completely “normal.” There was still some hesitancy from schools. There was still the threat of the virus spreading at tournaments.

While that threat hasn’t been completely mitigated — and it most likely never will — the overall energy at the Memorial Day weekend event was better than in year’s past.

Higley was one of several Gilbert schools present at the tournament. Gilbert, Highland and Perry were also there. The Knights finished the day 4-2, led by sophomore quarterback Jamar Malone’s big arm and the talented wideouts he has at his disposal.

Head coach Eddy Zubey was proud of the way his kids competed. Like the other coaches, he knows how much they enjoy the competition. It gives them a break from grueling summer workout programs that challenge a player’s mental toughness just as much as it does physically.

That is part of the reason Zubey started his own passing league at Higley, which will run every Tuesday for three weeks beginning June 14. His players enjoy it. He enjoys it and it provides more opportunities for athletes across the state to get noticed before the season.

“It’s awesome,” Zubey said. “I was giddy last night knowing that we had the chance to come out here and get things going. It’s great for our players learning a new offense and playing different positions. This all helps out.”

The tournament featured more then 40 schools. Games took place all day on Mesa’s campus. It was the first time teams had a chance to face those in a different color uniform.

ALA – Queen Creek coach Ty Detmer said that in itself was a treat.

“You come out of spring ball and you’re kind of tired of practicing against yourself,” Detmer said. “It’s good to get out with other teams and see what the new look is because everyone changes from year to year. It’s an opportunity to get the boys out, compete and see what you’ve got to work on from there.”

Hamilton, an Open Division semifinalist last year and runner-up the year before, brought two teams to the GBAC tournament. The maroon squad, its varsity team, went 5-1 on the day, advancing deep into the final bracket before losing to Northwest Christian.

The results, however, aren’t at the forefront of the minds of coaches during tournaments of this caliber. They want their players to enjoy the competition.

“We just work on what we do schematically,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said. “Win, lose or draw, we just use this as an opportunity to work on what we are going to do in the season schematically. We just want to get better.”

DeGrenier said he will continue to host the GBAC tournament for as long as teams continue signing up to compete. He enjoys providing an outlet for high school teams to get geared up for the season.

And they appreciate him for doing it.

“I love doing this,” DeGrenier said. “I can go home and say we had a great tournament with great teams and had great refs. At the end of the day, kids got better. That’s why we do this tournament.”

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