- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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MESQUITE, Texas -- It's Friday night under the lights in north Texas, and running back Dontre Wilson, the premier recruit and presumptive leader next fall at DeSoto High School, sits alone on the front row of concrete bleachers at Memorial Stadium, sulking behind his team's sideline as time expires in DeSoto's loss to Mesquite Horn.
Fifty yards away in the south end zone, Claude Mathis fumes. And there's nothing he can do.
As the head coach at DeSoto -- a 5A power that lost in the second round of the state playoffs last year to nationally ranked Dallas Skyline -- Mathis must simply watch. Rules prohibit the high school staff from coaching in the summer.
This is the 7-on-7 season, the semifinal round and fourth game in four hours for DeSoto at the June 1 state qualifying tournament in Mesquite.
Mathis' disappointment stems not from DeSoto's loss, although such an occurrence is rare -- its only defeat in 37 games this summer as the Eagles enter the 64-team Division I state tournament Friday and Saturday in College Station. The defending state champion, DeSoto is 197-23 in sanctioned 7-on-7 competition since 2008.
Mathis is angry with his players for how they're handling adversity. As Wilson pouts, teammates bicker. Their behavior is self-destructive, and it troubles Mathis with the fall season in sight.
For Wilson, an Oregon commit ranked No. 52 in the ESPN 150 and the No. 5 athlete nationally, and seven or eight other 2013 and '14 DeSoto prospects who figure to earn major-college scholarship offers, this time is crucial, according to Mathis.
"It's about mental toughness," Mathis says. "Our kids can relate when they get in tough situations in the fall, because we put them in the most uncomfortable situations possible at this time of year."
Mathis, despite his limited summer involvement, refuses to accept 7-on-7 losses. His DeSoto teams are built on speed and tempo, providing an inherent advantage in the Texas heat.
Yes, the Eagles take this time of year seriously.
"We're DeSoto," Wilson says. "DeSoto is football. We love football. Everything revolves around it. And if we're not playing well, it's a bad look."
The 7-on-7 game is a phenomenon largely unrecognized outside of football hotbeds like Texas.
A view from the end of the DeSoto bench reveals the importance of summer football to these guys. It fosters growth, enhances development, improves maturity and helps create an environment that allows DeSoto players to succeed at the prep level and beyond.
Far cry from Fridays
"Friday Night Lights" this most definitely is not.
Kids start to show at North Mesquite High School, one of four pool-play sites for this state-qualifying tournament, about an hour before the 5 p.m. start. From each SQT, the two finalists earn automatic spots in the state tournament. Often, the final goes unplayed, though that's not DeSoto's style; its players and coaches want to win at every turn possible.
A few high clouds linger to the north and west, providing no relief from the summer sun. Across the street from the high school, within view of the grass fields on which the 40-minute games are played, sits a Jack in the Box and a Toys R Us.
No cheerleaders or marching bands or sign of the huge crowds so common for these clashes in the fall.
Enter Terry Orr, DeSoto's 7-on-7 coach. Many high school programs rely on the parent of a player to coach in the summer, and DeSoto is no different; only Orr played eight seasons with the Washington Redskins as a tight end and H-back and starred at Texas 30 years ago.
His third-oldest of four football-playing sons, Nick Orr, started in the DeSoto secondary as a freshman and figures to rank among the state's best college prospects in the class of 2014.
Terry Orr is a 7-on-7 coaching veteran, and his intensity in the 7-on-7 game matches the gusto of most head coaches in the fall. In true DeSoto style, he means business. Alongside Terry on the sideline, his oldest son, 22-year-old Terrance, a DeSoto graduate who attended Texas State as a walk-on cornerback, calls the offensive plays.
The four teams in this pool gather in the center of the field to hear a message from the head official: no fighting, no trash talk, play hard, play fast, and remember, this game is designed to favor the offense, what with no pass rush or tackling.
The rules for 7-on-7 in Texas allow for three downs per 15 yards on the 45-yard field. For the final 15 yards, teams get four downs to score a touchdown. Quarterbacks have four seconds to throw before the play is whistled dead.
DeSoto quarterback Desmon White grabs a football. He's among the school's contingent of future college recruits, Mathis says. White shows a quick release and nice zip. But he measures 5-foot-6 and weighs less than 150 pounds. He'll need to find a new position at the next level.
Here, White makes the perfect trigger man, without linemen to block his view. DeSoto is like Oregon without pads in how it scoots around the field full of interchangeable parts.
On DeSoto's opening possession of the first game against Arlington Seguin, White hits wide receiver Tavares Royal for a touchdown. Seguin answers with a touchdown as Jermaine Maison loses his man in coverage.
Orr barks "tempo" and "alert" before almost every snap.
Later, a Seguin player shoves Deonte Wall to the ground after a long reception. He does not retaliate.
White hits Brandon McDowell on a perfect fade route in the end zone, showing the arm of a college QB, and DeSoto leads 35-18 at halftime. It opens the final 20 minutes with an interception, returning the ball for a score. The Eagles are in high-flying mode now.
Mathis, the high school coach, arrives late in the game, complaining about the traffic. With his Jabra bluetooth earpiece attached, Yankees visor in place and umbrella to shield the sun, Mathis shouts encouragement from the end zone.
It's 90 degrees and humid on this June evening. Mathis says he prefers the heat to help condition his guys. Easy for him to say with that umbrella.
DeSoto wins 62-38. Not bad, Mathis says, at the same time suggesting that tourney organizers placed DeSoto on this grass field in an attempt to minimize its edge in speed. Didn't work, he says.
The players get a 10-minute break for a drink and rest; then it's back into the heat against Grand Prairie.
Right away, Wilson makes a pretty catch to put DeSoto on top. Nick Orr snags an interception in the end zone. Terry Orr's defense has answered his call.
It's 13-0 at the half, and Mathis chats with a few of his players. He suggests to backup QB Travis Collins that he might want to warm up.
"It's hard, very hard that you can't coach your kids," says Mathis, the fourth-year DeSoto coach who left in January to coach running backs at the University of Houston but returned a month later to DeSoto. "But we have a great coach in Terry Orr. That's huge, because Terry knows the game of football. He's going to love these kids like his own."
Collins enters to start the second half and throws a touchdown to the multitalented White. Final score: 26-0.
Game 3 of pool play is even less competitive, as Collins, the more traditional passer of DeSoto's quarterbacks, connects with his receivers for an array of spectacular plays against North Mesquite.
Late in the second half, linebacker Taylor Young approaches the high school coaches in the end zone, requesting to play quarterback. They're all for it, so Young asks Orr, who laughs at the suggestion.
No doubt who's in charge here.
DeSoto wins 52-0.
"Our guys have bought into the fact that 7-on-7 is a big part of what we do as a high school team," Orr says. "We run the offense with our 7-on-7 team that we run in the fall. They understand the terminology. On defense, we run most of our nickel packages. They're getting reps the whole summer.
"That's a big advantage for us."
Horn sounds trouble
An unbeaten run through pool play ensures DeSoto a spot in the semis. The players carpool for the five-minute drive to West Mesquite High School as the sun dips near the western horizon behind Memorial Stadium.
The silly tone from minutes ago has disappeared. Mathis chats nervously with parents before the game. He feels even more helpless, knowing DeSoto must face former district rival Mesquite Horn.
In October 2010, when it really counted, Mathis and four DeSoto players plus one Horn player served a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during a brawl in DeSoto's win.
"Blood game," Mathis says.
Not only that, but the winner here earns a state tournament berth.
With White back at QB, DeSoto goes three-and-out. Horn hits a deep pass on its first play.
DeSoto trails for the first time in the tournament. Players walk back to the sideline, muttering words like "scared" and "flat."
White looks out of sync after resting his right arm for 1½ games. Another three-and-out, and the sideline goes quiet. Orr yells at his players to get loud. They're getting burned defensively on the inside route, he says. Wilson enters at linebacker.
Horn strikes for a touchdown. The inside route. It's 13-0.
By now, the tempo is gone. DeSoto walks to the line of scrimmage. White holds his hands on his hips. Then the undersized QB hits Wilson for a touchdown with four minutes left in the first half.
It's 13-7 at the break and could have been much worse for DeSoto.
Still, Orr unleashes at halftime. A few defenders substituted without instruction in the first half. The coach is not pleased. His speech would have made Vince Lombardi take notice.
"It's our championship," he tells the Eagles. "You think they're going to let us keep it?"
Zachery Orr, Terry's second-oldest son and a star linebacker at North Texas, leaves his mom, Rita, in the stands to join his ex-teammates on the sideline and offer help. But Horn scores to start the second half to go up 19-7.
White answers with a TD pass to Royal, who talks trash on his way into the end zone. A big linebacker gets in Royal's face, and they trade barbs.
Officials stop the game. Both teams are ordered to the center of the field. With a running clock, time continues to tick. A pass-interference call extends another Horn drive. A Horn player goes down with an injury. Still, the clock does not stop.
"One stop," Mathis pleads from the end zone.
But Horn scores again. DeSoto can't do anything on offense. It's over, 26-14.
Horn celebrates the win as Orr orders his players to line up and shake hands, anger in his voice.
Finding the silver lining
The message gets more direct when Orr gathers the Eagles in the southeast corner of the stadium shortly after the loss. Orr is embarrassed at how the Eagles acted, he tells the team as Mathis stands in the background.
"This ain't us," he says, yelling most every word. "This ain't what we do. This ain't what DeSoto built for five years. ... People are scared to death to play us. They want us to hurry up and kick their ass so they can go home."
Mathis addresses the team next. He starts in a calm tone, talking about his one worry -- that when things don't go right, this team begins to point fingers. Other DeSoto teams overcame adversity, he says. These guys lost composure. Mathis references Zachery Orr and former QB Ryan Polite as models for the players to remember.
He needs not tell them about Von Miller and Cyrus Gray, who went from DeSoto to Texas A&M. They know.
Mathis calls out White in a big way. Same for Taylor Young, the linebacker.
"I think we're going to respond well," Nick Orr says.
On June 23, DeSoto wins the Duncanville state qualifying tournament, beating North Crowley, Carrollton and Justin Northwest in pool play. It defeats powerful Cedar Hill 41-25 in the all-important semifinal to earn the state berth and takes the final by forfeit.
"They came together," Mathis says. "They responded. I was proud of Taylor Young and [White]. I think they learned the lesson that it doesn't matter where they're at, they represent our program.
"That applies every day of the year."
A month later, the message still resonates. Wilson, who walked out of Memorial Stadium with his head down on June 1, knows what happened in the earlier loss.
"We came in like we knew we were going to win that game," Wilson says.
For the elite running back, consider it a lesson learned. He's ready for his senior year, more prepared because of the experience.
That's the thing about 7-on-7. It's not just about fast-paced football, schemes and winning. It teaches players about themselves as much as it helps them get better on the field.
For Wilson, that means he is now more aware of his place within the hierarchy of the DeSoto program. Mindful of how the younger players look to him for cues on how to play -- and how to act when they're not playing.
"I learned that when we lose, it's because I don't play well," Wilson says after the redemption in Duncanville. "When I play well, we win. It's about being responsible. I've got to step up and be that player I always wanted to be."
The next chance for Wilson and the defending champs from DeSoto arrives on Friday.
DeSoto players learned not only about football but also about one another and themselves through 7-on-7 football.