NEW CANAAN — When asked to account for the continued growth of New Canaan’s annual Grip It & Rip It Tournament, co-executive director John Marinelli was unhesitant.
“It’s changed about 36 teams,” he said. “We started with four teams. Seven on 7 was not that big. We wanted to have an event, and it has become a northeast marquee summer event.”
It is hard to argue. The seventh run of the two-day tournament, which begins Friday and is hosted by the New Canaan football program, has grown again, to 40 teams. For the first time there will be an entrant from Canada. Shenendehowa, from the Saratoga area in upstate New York, will be back to defend its title.
The remaining teams come from Connecticut, Westchester and the New York City area, including 12 of the 19 FCIAC schools.
“I’ve been around others, but this tournament, because of the number of teams that come and the way it is run, is one of the best,” said Donny Panapada, the second-year coach at Trinity Catholic, who said Grip It & Rip It is the only one his team participates in during the summer.
The teams will take part in pool play on five fields Friday afternoon, establishing seeding for Saturday’s double-elimination rounds. Each school is guaranteed at least six games. The winner gets an automatic invitation to the National Select 7 on 7 Tournament the following weekend in Hoover, Ala.
“Grip It & Rip It is actually a national event,” said Stamford coach Jamar Greene. “The winner earns a berth and it is a big deal. It is good to get to see teams from outside the league.”
Marinelli, the Rams’ offensive coordinator and son of head coach Lou Marinelli, and defensive coordinator Chris Silvestri handle almost all of the organization, along with running backs coach Dante Correnty.
“The growth of the tournament has been huge, but that comes with the growth of football programs being active year-round,” Marinelli said. “There are lot of ways to do it. Seven on 7 is one way.”
While the planning for the tournament begins before the regular high school season has ended, streamlining has made it an easier process.
“It’s a lot of work,” Marinelli said. “The emails start going out in November and we contact teams in January. It is more of a marathon than a sprint. The first day of the tournament is the hard part, with the schedules and everything. It becomes a machine. It runs itself because you do it every year.”
Coaches take different philosophical approaches to 7 on 7. With the proliferation of spread offenses, they are viewed as an effective way to develop passing attacks. Some coaches, however, begrudgingly compete to keep up with other teams, even though they feel the lack of contact can lead to poor habits.
“I used to think that way, but the way the game has evolved I think it’s great to get the kids together,” Panapada said. “I wish we could do more of them. With our low numbers, kids play offense and defense and you want them to stay healthy. And if you are missing some kids it just becomes counterproductive.”
Greene remembers the Black Knights making a strong showing at last summer’s tournament prior to his first season as head coach. They ended up going 2-9.
“I put a lot of stock into it, we did well and then didn’t have a lot of success during the year,” Greene said. “I look at it as you don’t win anything in July. You get six games and you can work to get guys into the right coverages, make sure they are running the right routes and the quarterback is making the right reads. If we can do that I’m happy.”
Stamford is one school that opted for the extra week of preseason practice in August instead of holding spring football.
The Black Knights open this season against Fairfield Prep, which will also be at this weekend’s event.
“Maybe we’ll get a chance to run into them,” Greene said.
New Canaan, the defending FCIAC and Class L champion, is one of the state’s most active 7 on 7 participants. It graduated a number of starters from a team that finished 14-1.
“You see who steps up for you,” Marinelli said. “You can’t do too much. You have to perfect your craft. Our craft is football. Repetition in football is the biggest thing you can do.”
Grip It & Rip It Facts
When: Group play Friday afternoon from 2:30-6:30. Double-elimination tournament Saturday starting at 8 a.m.
Defending Champion: Shenendehowa, N.Y.
Past Champions: 2012: Iona Prep, N.Y., 2011: Masuk, 2010: Trumbull, 2009: Trumbull, 2008: New Canaan.
FCIAC Participants: Danbury, Darien, Fairfield Warde, Greenwich, McMahon, New Canaan, Norwalk, St. Joseph, Stamford, Trinity Catholic, Trumbull, Westhill.
At Stake: The winner qualifies for the National Select 7 on 7 Championship in Hoover, Ala.