Hazelwood East’s first-year varsity football coach Aaron Whittington won’t have to wait until late August to strategic coaching decisions. He’s unofficially doing that this summer with nothing at stake and that’s a good thing.
The perennial Class 5 Suburban North Conference powerhouse can already claim at least one title before the pads come on and the actual tackling begins: 7-on-7 champions of an area-wide tournament at University High last month.
Whittington’s Hazelwood East Spartans are among the many area high school football teams participating again in 7-on-7 tournaments and competitions this summer. In fact, last month, Whittington captured his first trophy as the Spartans new coach when his team beat host school University City High 27-8 in the championship round of a tournament.
“I’m proud of these kids,” said Whittington after the contest on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. “The kids showed a lot of determination today in going out and winning every round. At the same time it didn’t count towards the season.”
The Spartans are coming off a deceptive 6-5 campaign, which included two losses to the eventual Class 6 Missouri state champion Kirkwood Pioneers and a couple of close Suburban North Conference defeats.Juwan Beaty, quarterback Brandon Brice, Alex Brummel, Jimmy Jones , Rajaih Perkins and Maurice Lawson were the key players in the tournament for the Spartans, but Jones is the only of player from the group who has amassed productive statistics on both sides of the ball: The senior to be rushed for 400 yards by averaging 7.8 yards per carry, had six catches for 135 yards and on defense had 46 tackles and two interceptions in the secondary. In contrast, Brice amassed no varsity statistics from last year, but he stepped up in the U. City event. Likewise Whittington was impressed by Beaty’s showing as well.
“He made some critical catches out there,” said Whittington of Beaty, who helped spark the receiving corps with Jimmy Jones.
Meanwhile at Vashon, the Public High League team will be trying to replace its most potent offensive weapon in Derrick Mitchell Jr., who graduated and is now at the University of Iowa. Mitchell rushed for 712 yards, caught 31 passes for 378 yards and passed for 468 yards as the club’s backup quarterback.
After going 3-0 in pool play before rain aborted a tourney at DeSmet earlier this summer, Vashon was eliminated early from the University City tourney.
“We came out really flat,” said Vashon offensive coordinator Brennan Spain, noting that his club had performed far better in other 7-on-7 events.
But having graduated their top two quarterbacks in Mitchell and Deion Davis, the latter of whom passed for 1,510 yards, the Wolverines will be breaking in a new starter this season in sophomore Clifton Dickens.
“Our quarterback’s young but he’s getting a lot of experience,” said Spain. “We may not have any players as well-known or as athletic as Derrick Mitchell was right now, but we have a lot of players who can be productive and make a big impact. We have a lot of receivers who can be impact players and capable of getting a lot of yards after the catch like Brandon Jones, John Mitchell (Derrick’s younger brother), a Gateway Tech transfer D’marcus Hayes, Christian Wrice.”
Wrice is also an established defensive force, after finishing second in the club in total tackles as a defensive end last year with 72, behind fellow defensive Malik Joseph’s 99. Joseph graduated, but one returning defender who is projected as a star is linebacker Kenneth Harrell.
“Right now he’s getting a lot of looks from schools like Indiana State University, Tulsa, Northern Iowa,” relayed Spain.
But back on the offensive side of the ball, Spain expects to have a more balanced rushing attack this season.
“We have a Cardinal Ritter transfer Ian Hines,” said Spain. “He’s a sophomore. He has nice size. He runs the ball really well. He’ll also play linebacker.”
The Wolverines backfield will also include scat-back type Anthony Durant in contrast in bruising fullback Tavin Lotts (5-8, 210) who had one breakout game in Vashon’s 34-20 Class 4 regional playoff win over the Affton Cougars. Lott averaged a robust 11.5 yards per carry on just six carries for 69 yards.
The Wolverines stumbled to a 5-6 mark after being ranked second in the area among small schools in a preseason poll. One of those losses was a 41-30 setback to the Gateway Tech Jaguars, who were the 2011 PHL champions, but fell back to 6-4 last fall.
While the Jaguars did lose Hayes to Vashon The Jaguars do have a stud at linebacker in 6-3, 270-pound senior Jabari Wayne who had 43 tackles and a club-high eight sacks last year. They also have a solid utility player like Zach McBride who did a little of everything offensively while coming up with 20 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery on defense. But for the most part, Gateway Tech is using the summer to build experience and confidence in many untested players, starting with the signal-caller.
“We’re young.We’ve got a freshman quarterback in Antonio Cunningham who’s still learning,” said Gateway Tech coach Jason Dulick. “We had the lead going into one of our games on our final possession but we couldn’t finish a scoring drive (while the opposition did) and ended up losing. We’re having trouble finishing (scoring ) drives. But we’re young and we’re a work in progress.”
Meanwhile the tourney’s host coach, Carl Reed, acknowledged that losing to a perennial state contender like Hazelwood East is no shame.
“Hazelwood East will be as good of a team as we’ll face this season,” noted Reed. “If nothing else we are learning to play under championship experiences under these circumstances. Keandre Bledsoe is doing a great job at quarterback as he learns the position.”
University City did graduate a couple of catalysts, but apparently still have a few holdovers and newcomers to have an impressive club this year.
“We’re young,” said Gatewood, whose club graduated its top offensive weapons in running back David Carmichael who 1,385 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns and quarterback George Brown who passed for 1,527 yards. “We’ve got a lot of young players who are going to make mistakes. It’s all part of the process. This summer experience is good for us.”
The Lions do have an established two-way standout and the ideal 7-on-7 star in Ronnell Perkins who last year snared 41 passes for 643 yards and five touchdowns and came up with four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 137 tackles on defense for the 6-6 Lions. Reed noted that Mike Jones and Deandre Walker are also key players.
With nearby rival Normandy High having lost its state accreditation status, thereby making any Normandy student-athlete eligible to transfer to an accredited school such as University City, it’s been widely speculated that the Lions could be among the first programs to get an influx of Normandy transfers. But Reed acknowledged that he has been more concerned with the incumbent players he already knows he will coach.
“What I am not aware of is the status or intentions of students at Normand High School,” said Reed, who concluded by noting: “I have not been notified of any transfers.”
In contrast, the Vashon’s could suffer from the departure of a big-play weapon: receiver Anfernee McAtee, who’s no longer at the school. McAtee had more catches (37) and receiving yards (707) than Mitchell even. But Mitchell, Davis and fellow receiver Devin Herndon were seniors anyway, whereas McAtee would have been a senior this year for the Wolverines.
Last year at this time, the Wolverines captured perhaps the most coveted 7-on-7 tournament last summer when they won the St. Louis Metro Football Coaches Association title at DeSmet in a 20-team field. This summer they were 3-0 in pool play in the same tourney before severe weather forced cancellation of the final rounds.