Every summer, the NFL partners with the National Guard to put on a national 7-on-7 tournament for high school players. Teams advance through qualifying tourneys and eventually earn the right to represent individual NFL teams at the national event.
Monroe won a local qualifier in late May at Snohomish's Glacier Peak High School and later a regional tournament at the Seattle Seahawks practice facility in Renton. Just like that, they were headed to Cleveland.
The team, coached by Bearcats assistants Jake Herigstad and Edd Pratt, travels on Wednesday for weekend games against some of the top high school football players in the country.
"This is a really big deal," said junior quarterback and defensive back Andrew Zimmerman. "To be able to go (to Cleveland) and compete against kids from other states, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"This is bigger than anything we've ever been involved in because we're going to a national tournament," agreed senior Gabe Moore, an offensive slotback and defensive linebacker.
Even the coaches are thrilled. "It's something I won't forget and I'm just coaching in it," Herigstad said. "I'm not even playing."
The game of 7-on-7 is essentially touch football without pads or helmets, and there are no running plays or kicking plays, only passes. If you think of being a kid playing football in the street or someone's backyard, you kind of get the idea.
"This is so much fun," Moore said. "As a receiver, you know on every single play you've got a chance to get the ball."
For Zimmerman, 7-on-7 is a blast because "I'm a quarterback and I like to throw the ball." Because the defensive team is not allowed to rush the passer, "I get to stand back there without huge guys running at me and just throw the ball around."
In May, the Monroe players and coaches attended a camp at Glacier Peak. The camp was for all positions, but on the last day there was a 7-on-7 tournament, which the Bearcats won. From there they advanced to the June regional tournament at the Seahawks training facility, where they competed against teams from Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Monroe beat Foss High School of Tacoma in the championship game for the right to represent the Seahawks in Cleveland.
"We're one of 32 teams in the nation going to this tournament," Herigstad said. "And there's seven other teams that were at our regional tournament that wish they were in our spot."
All expenses for travel, lodging and meals are covered. Football apparel, including cleats, is also provided, with the Monroe players wearing authentic Seahawks jerseys. The tournament opens at the Browns training facility, but the championship game will be at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Though the team representing the Miami Dolphins is the four-time defending champion, "I wouldn't trade our 12 guys for any 12 guys in the country," Herigstad said. "I've worked with these guys for three years and I'll go to battle with them against anybody.
"Our goal," he added, "is to go there and have fun and hopefully win it."
It will not be easy. Many of the rival teams will be regional all-star squads, "so 90 percent of the kids will be (future NCAA) Division I or Division II football players," Pratt said. "So it's going to be a tough challenge."
An obvious question is whether this tournament can be a springboard for Monroe in the coming football season. In other words, can the Bearcats use a strong showing in Cleveland to boost their chances in a Western Conference season that begins in about seven weeks?
"We keep telling the kids, there's not a direct carryover into what's going to happen in the season," Pratt said. Compared to fall football, 7-on-7 "is just not the same," he explained. "But it shows what you can do when you put your mind to something as far as accomplishing something as a team.
"So from an attitude standpoint, yes. And then having the confidence that, hey, we're pretty good at (a passing offense), that also helps the kids."
Regardless of how the Cleveland tournament unfolds, the Monroe players and coaches expect to have a great time this weekend while accumulating some great memories.
"It's the experience of a lifetime," said senior wide receiver and cornerback Robbie Schad. "This will be something we're never going to forget. Because regardless of how we do in the season, we'll have done something big."
"The kids will never forget this experience," Pratt said. "And we won't either."
How to play 7-on-7 football
Here are some of the rules for 7-on-7 football, which members of the Monroe High School football team will play at this week's tournament in Cleveland:
The ball starts at the 40-yard line. Teams have four downs to reach the 20 for a first down, then four downs to reach the end zone for a touchdown.
Touchdowns are worth seven points. A defensive interception is worth three points, plus the ball.
No running plays, kicking plays, laterals, double passes or flare passes behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterback has four seconds to pass the ball, or he is considered sacked.
Five offensive players are eligible receivers. They are down when touched.
Games are two 10-minute halves.
Monroe's 7-on-7 team
Name Year Position
Hunter Bingham Senior WR/DB
Max Blais Senior RB/LB
McKinley Braa Junior RB/LB
Chase DiMonda Senior WR/LB
Mitchell Higgins Junior WR/DB
Cody Kennedy Senior WR/DB
Alexander McCreary Senior WR/LB
Shanden Mixayphone Junior WR/DB
Gabe Moore Senior WR/LB
Robbie Schad Senior WR/DB
Alex Vidican Junior WR/LB
Andrew Zimmerman Junior QB/DB
Coaches: Jake Herigstad, Edd Pratt
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