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No passing fancy

Coaching at a small school with a losing football tradition, Jim Nagel knew he had to do some things differently when he took over the head coaching job at Ashland High in 1983.

To beat the schools with bigger enrollments, bigger players and winning traditions, Nagel's master plan called for regular weight room workouts, clinics for players and coaches and something called a summer passing league.

That formula ' along with Nagel's masterful play-calling ' earned the Grizzlies 16 straight playoff berths, seven league championships and three state titles until Nagel stepped down last fall.

When Nagel first introduced the passing league ' a 7 vs. 7 game of touch football on a 40-yard field ' the only opponent he could find was Southern Oregon University.

— Today all of the Class 4A schools in the Rogue Valley participate. The latest summer league schedule kicked off July 7 and runs through July 30.

It's been a gradual process, says Nagel, who first witnessed passing league contests while an assistant coach at San Jose State University in the 1970s. That first year we went against ourselves and a few of the Southern Oregon (University) kids who stayed around in the summer.

Pretty soon Phoenix and Yreka showed up, and then we started to get other schools involved.

The game is all passing and it involves only the skill position players ' quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.

Teams generally run off 10 plays and then switch from offense to defense, or vice-versa.

There is no rushing the quarterback, but they're required to pass the ball within three seconds.

Scores and statistics aren't kept, although players have a pretty good idea of who is beating whom.

The merit of the activity is twofold: Kids love playing a game that is essentially a structured form of backyard football, and coaches value it as a low-key training session that could prove advantageous in the fall, when the real games begin.

I always felt we had a great advantage coming into a season, Nagel says. There were a couple of times we opened our season against Roseburg, and our edge was in the passing game.

We would have 20 or 25 (pass) plays ready to go. If we hadn't been playing (in the passing league), we probably wouldn't have had more than seven or eight.

Another advantage it often provides coaches is the discovery of latent talent.

Last summer, for example, South Medford unearthed Thom Whiteaker, who blossomed into one of the state's top wide receivers a few months later.

You get a good look at the young talent you have on your team, South Medford coach Bill Singler says. When it's just the skill kids out there, you get to see a kid like Whiteaker in open space.

The athleticism shows up right away.

Last year's passing league also gave Whiteaker, who had barely gotten on the field the previous season because of injury, a big shot of confidence.

It didn't take long before he knew he could play at that level, Singler says. And when he showed up in the fall, he was a confident player, even though he had technically never played a varsity game.

Last year's summer competition was equally valuable for North Medford's Beau Hovland, who emerged as one of the state's better quarterbacks in his first year as a starter.

I think it helped me quite a bit, just seeing how much quicker the DBs (defensive backs) were at the varsity level, Hovland says. Without a line in front of you it's not the same as a real game, but it definitely helps you get into a rhythm throwing the football.

Many of the summer camps around the state now feature passing game segments, and Bend is host to a 50-team tournament called the Air Raid.

The specialized form of football has seemingly grown more popular each summer. But it had its detractors when Nagel first began pumping up his footballs two decades ago.

I remember traveling through Eugene one time and seeing a story in the paper where some of the coaches there were critical of what I was doing, Nagel says. They were saying something like, 'Let's let the kids enjoy their summers and not have to get involved in this type of thing.'

But Nagel saw youngsters involved in baseball, soccer and summer basketball leagues, and he wondered why football should be off-limits.

Kids love to be active, Nagel says, and if you don't provide a game they can have fun with, then someone else will.