By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Stillwater High School football coach Tucker Barnard doesn’t expect to win every game during the Southwest Elite 7-on-7 tournament this weekend in Springdale, Ark. He knows the competition is that stacked.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t expecting to at least get a few wins under his belt.
“We know there are going to be some really, really good football teams there that are really successful teams — teams that specialize in throwing the ball,” Barnard said. “... It’s something that’s really good for us. It’s a chance for our wide receivers and quarterbacks to just get repetitions in a competitive environment.”
In what Barnard has dubbed the unofficial kickoff to the season, the three-day camp which begins Thursday will be the first real test before practice starts a little less than a month from now.
“This is really the only true competition style 7-on-7 that we do,” Barnard said. “That may not be the best idea. We probably should do some others before we go and play in something like this, but this is such a great tournament. It’s run so well. There’s so many good things going on in the tournament and it’s a lot of fun for our kids.”
From an NCAA 14 PlayStation tournament Thursday night to a presentation on leadership by New England Patriots quarterback Tim Tebow Friday, there will be plenty of things to keep the Pioneers occupied.
But Barnard said when Stillwater takes the field, all those fun and games will take a back seat.
“Hopefully, we’ll go over there, be focused and ready to play,” Barnard said. “We’re going to have fun on the trip. They do some really neat things ... We’re going to have a really good time. What’s really important is that we can do that but when it’s time to step out on the field and in between the lines, we’re going to strap on our helmets and get ready to play some football.”
It may be mostly fun and games for the athletes competing in the tournament, but for Barnard it’s also a chance to gauge how far his team has come since spring practice.
And one of the biggest question marks — how will Stillwater’s cornerbacks handle the pressure of playing against the best of the best?
“We’re pleased and we like the way those guys are coming along,” Barnard said. “Logan Anderson and Isaiah Johnson are kind of holding down the corner spots for us right now, but there’s some competition on their heels and some guys that will certainly get some playing time.
“T.J. Black is new to the football team this year, but he is somebody that we’ve been really pleased with. He’s a good athlete — baseball player — that’s really come along and doing a great job. He’s shown us a lot and we’ve got really comfortable with the idea of playing him both at corner and safety.”
Defense may be at the forefront of Barnard’s mind this weekend, but — as is typical of 7-on-7 tournaments — it will likely play second fiddle to the high-powered offenses from 10 different states, which means a lot of eyes will be on junior-to-be Braxton Noble and the talented Stillwater receivers.
This won’t be Noble’s first rodeo, however. Days before last year’s trip to Springdale, Noble beat out Taggart Brown for the starting role.
Now heading into his second trip to the camp, Barnard is hoping the lessons Noble learned last year will pay off.
“I think we certainly feel better,” Barnard said. “I don’t know that we’ve set up our offense with 7-on-7 in mind. We feel like we have a pretty strong running game that is really complemented by the passing game. The play-action things that we use in our pass game is not all that effective in 7-on-7 sometimes, so we’ll see how that goes. But we feel good about these kids and we’re going to go compete, have fun and get better.”
Even if the Pioneers aren’t able to get a win or two during the trip, Barnard said just spending that quality time together working on the little things may end up having a big impact by the time the season is over.
“We really enjoy the trip,” Barnard said. “When you get a chance to go out and do stuff like that, it’s bonding time for kids and coaches. We get to hang out, have fun together. We’re still trying to get better and still working on our sport, but there are just a lot of benefits from it.”