Though the Tolleson High School football team does not begin its regular season until August 24, the group gained quality experience competing in the Arizona State Football Passing League on June 4 in Tempe.
It placed second out of 16 teams in an overtime loss to Highland in the championship game.
The 7-on-7 league – with just a quarterback and six receivers battling for yards and points against a defense made up of linebackers, corners and safeties – gave teams the chance to practice sets, play calls and schemes to prepare for their seasons.
“They practice their timing, route running and what we do out here is what we’re going to do during the season, not making up some different offense or defense for the passing league,” Tolleson coach Jason Wilke said.
Tolleson’s offense was firing instantly. On the first play of the first two games, senior quarterback Patrick Ortega hit senior receiver Andre Johnson for a couple 40-yard touchdowns.
“It just kind of happened,” Johnson said. “I noticed a pattern starting all the way back at some of the other tournaments. He just told me to do a post on the first play, and I did it and was just wide open for a touchdown.”
Going into their senior seasons, the pair could be one of the top quarterback-receiver combinations in Arizona when high school games begin.
At all points of the game, when nobody else could find separation from defenders, Johnson seems to come up with a big play on a dime from Ortega, a move the team has gotten used to in their three years starting together.
“I can always count on him (Johnson),” Ortega said. “He’s always there when I need him. The team feeds off those plays, too, and when we have him it opens up things for everyone else, because you can see when there’s a play like that to Andre, they all float over to him, and the other guys can get open easier.”
Asked about his goals for the preseason, Ortega gave a very simple answer.
“For me, it’s about finishing,” he said.
If the team is to be successful come August, the defense will have to finish as well.
Early in the first game against Highland, and at the beginning of other games in group play, the Wolverines forced offenses into tough fourth-down conversions, but could not make the final play to cause turnovers and prevent points.
Without a defensive line, and a rush on the quarterback, who could sit unbothered until he picked the right receiver to throw to, stops were difficult to come by for all teams. Wilke still said the experience would prove valuable for the back line of his defense.
“You get to see all the different formations, movement, communication from other teams, it really helps the back end of your defense, and just more reps and a chance to compete,” he said.
Most importantly, while the Tolleson players were locked in and playing intensely, the group could be seen enjoying each other’s company on the sidelines dancing and celebrating big plays made by their teammates. They enjoyed the low-pressure environment.
“Any time you get the time to come out here and compete with each other, and have that camaraderie to play football, it’s a lot of fun,” Wilke said. “It should be, or else we’re wasting our time out here when it’s 111 degrees.”