Armed with its stable of Division I recruits, the Bulldog football team made its way out West on Thursday, --despite a few flight delays -- readying itself for a day of action against some of California's best.
Springdale will take to the field at noon today on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for the third annual Nike 7-on-7 Passing Championship.
The eight-team tournament, which features seven of the top teams in California as well as the Bulldogs, will take place at Howard Jones Field, the practice site for the USC football team.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal for any program," Springdale coach Gus Malzahn said.
Several groups of Springdale players, including both the usual 7-on-7 competitors and all of the team's seniors, made their way to Los Angeles on Thursday, flying out of Tulsa and through Houston.
Many of the team's skill-position players were delayed after a thunderstorm in Houston.
What awaits the Bulldogs is a quick, four-day trip, which will include some fun, some relaxing and much stiff competition as the preseason nationally ranked Springdale squad looks to show its stuff against a field which includes four defending California district champions and a host of top-rated recruits.
"These are the best in the West out there, the teams we're going to play," Malzahn said. "We'll see how we match up against good athletes, and that's good for our team."
Including Springdale, three teams in the field are nationally ranked in the preseason poll conducted by Student Sports, the organization running the event. Long Beach Poly and Mission Viejo are the other two in the top 10 of the poll, said Greg Biggins, director of the event.
Biggins also said Mission Viejo finished last season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
The Bulldogs, with quarterback Mitch Mustain, will open with Valencia, a team which finished second to Viejo in its district last season, today at noon. Valencia will take the field with an outstanding quarterback of its own, Michael Herrick, who has already committed to the University of Mississippi.
The winner of the Springdale-Valencia game will face the Oaks Christian High-Edison High (Huntington Beach) winner in the winner's bracket.
The loser of the first game will play a second game before endings its action, while the winners of each of their first two games will meet in the tournament's championship game approximately at 4:15 p.m. today.
While many in Springdale -- and across Arkansas, for that matter --are likely curious to see how the Bulldogs fare against top competition from the Golden State, it's the California teams which are just as anxious to see how they match up against the much-heralded squad from Northwest Arkansas.
"I think everyone out here is very curious to see this team they've heard so much about," Biggins said. "Really, I think Springdale is coming in here as the proven team, and the others are very interested to see how they match up."
Biggins said Mustain, rated as the nation's top-ranked signal caller by some, and the Bulldogs receiving corps of Damian Williams, Andrew Norman and Ben Cleveland in particular would draw the interest of many.
The one-day football tournament is part of a larger, three-event day at USC. In addition to football, athletes from across the country will be taking part in overall athleticism and baseball drills.
"It's a busy day, and it should be a lot of fun for everyone," Biggins said.
The trip to Los Angeles marks the beginning of a busy summer stretch for Springdale, which will travel to Hoover, Ala., next week to defend the 7-on-7 championship which Mustain used as his coming-out party a year ago.
Also, Mustain will return to California in two weeks for the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp, an event which pits the top high school quarterbacks in the country against each other in a skills competition.
With two-a-day drills set to begin on Aug. 1, and a season-opening rematch against Shreveport (La.) Evangel Christian just around the corner on Sept. 3 at the Independence Bowl, Malzahn is looking at the next two weeks as an important step as the Bulldogs look to capture the state title which eluded them last year.
"At this point, we're thinking about making our team better," Malzahn said. "We're going to play against the best and see where we match up.
"We'll see cornerbacks who are going to play Division I football, and that will pick up the speed of the game. Hopefully after this the games on Friday nights will seem a little slower."
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