Updated: 8:10 a.m. Monday, June 30, 2014 | Posted: 7:00 a.m. Monday, June 30, 2014

EXAMINING GROWTH & IMPACT OF 7-ON-7

AAU-style 7-on-7 raises red flags for some county football coaches

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BallerNation photo
Richard Graulich
BallerNation team 7-on-7 player Erick Hardnett, 17, from Cardinal Newman, works out with his team at Seminole Palms Park in Royal Palm Beach on March 12, 2014. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
BallerNation photo
Richard Graulich
BallerNation team 7-on-7 players Zander Bernard, 17, from Park Vista, left, and Kemar Downer, 17, from Palm Beach Central, go for a ball during warmups at Seminole Palms Park in Royal Palm Beach on March 12, 2014. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

By Anthony Chiang

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WELLINGTON —

When his players wanted to join spring’s version of 7-on-7 football in past years, Palm Beach Central assistant coach Dennis Abbate took them to Plantation.

The South Florida Blur was the primary independent 7-on-7 team based in Palm Beach County, but because it accepted stars from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, there weren’t many roster spots left for local players. So they had to travel to Broward — or even farther.

“Every Sunday, we would have to drive them down to Plantation and it was a pain in the neck,” Abbate said.

The Blur now is gone, replaced by a team Abbate created. The BallerNation Football Club is made up exclusively of Palm Beach County players.

“We decided that we needed a team more local,” said Abbate, whose club was set up last year as a nonprofit organization. “You have to be here. You can’t get this kind of work on your high school campus. There’s not enough talent.”

BallerNation’s players are divided into two teams based on skill level. Additionally, Glades Central High players have formed their own club — Team Belle Glade — that is affiliated with BallerNation.

This year’s BallerNation roster had players from 13 Palm Beach County schools, including four-star Boynton Beach quarterback Lamar Jackson, three-star Dwyer wide receiver Tavares Martin and three-star Royal Palm Beach linebacker Charles Perry.

“It’s fun,” Martin said. “I’m glad that my coach let me do it. Dwyer coach Jack Daniels is cool about it, but he told me I have an image to protect. I’m representing Dwyer now.”

But some high school coaches don’t want their players on the spring 7-on-7 circuit. If they play for BallerNation, they are coached by assistants who might be from competing high schools.

“I think it’s really good if players are able to work with their own players and coaches, which we’re not able to do in the spring,” said Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson, who helped the Blue Devils win the Adidas 7-on-7 national championship in the summer of 2007. “Who knows what skills they’re being taught? Who knows what plays they are running? Plays can sometimes confuse players instead of help them.”

Other coaches worry that a player competing on a 7-on-7 team could be enticed to transfer to keep playing in the fall with their offseason coaches or teammates.

BallerNation is coached by Palm Beach Central’s Abbate, Palm Beach Central offensive coordinator Charles Cornelius, Palm Beach Gardens assistant coach Vinny Sutherland and former Palm Beach Central defensive coordinator Tony Smith. Team Belle Glade is coached by John Brockman.

“Kids are playing ball, so that’s a good thing,” Cardinal Newman coach Steve Walsh said. “But where it gets dirty is if a coach does a good job and a kid likes him and says, ‘Man, I should come play for you.’ You’re not going to say no. That’s when it gets a little cloudy.”

Boynton Beach’s Rick Swain is a coach who has encouraged his players to join independent 7-on-7 teams. At least two of his players have competed for BallerNation each of the past two years.

“The biggest thing it does for them is it gives them an opportunity to work on their skills,” Swain said. “It’s like if you’re a bad free throw shooter, you have to spend the offseason working on free throws to hopefully get better.”

Four members of BallerNation — which included more than 20 elite players — changed schools this offseason. Martin transferred from John I. Leonard to Dwyer, three-star wide receiver Larry Dunnon transferred from John I. Leonard to Palm Beach Central, running back Erick Hardnett transferred from Cardinal Newman to Dwyer, and running back Chauncey Mason transferred from Park Vista to Boynton Beach.

Transferring is a common occurrence that concerns John I. Leonard coach Kevin Fleury, but he does not blame 7-on-7 football.

“It does not bother me in the least that they do 7-on-7,” said Fleury, who lost his two best receivers this offseason in Martin and Dunnon. “Can it get nasty? Can it get dangerous? I’m sure it can. This is the wild, wild West. These kids can go wherever they want at any time and it’s only going to get worse.”

The Florida High School Athletic Association doesn’t regulate coaching of 7-on-7. But it says it will investigate if it receives a complaint that a 7-on-7 coach enticed a player to change schools.

“The power we have is when a student participates in a program like that and ends up going to the school wherever that coach coaches,” FHSAA director of eligibility Michael Colby said. “They can be ineligible.”

In January, the FHSAA approved a bylaw that addresses transfers involving an athlete playing for another school’s coach in a non-school activity and then changing schools to play for that coach.

Under this new bylaw, enrolling student-athletes are allowed to play at their new school in sports that do not involve the coach in question. It will go into effect Tuesday.

Abbate is aware of the concerns and said he does his best to allay them.

“We have never had a secretive deal,” he said. “High school coaches are afraid of their kids getting hurt or getting recruited. But here’s the bottom line: If a kid is going to leave, he’s going to leave.”

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