OAKDALE — There are no pads or helmets, nor is there a pass rush, but it's just like a Friday night in the fall for Pitman High's Hayden Baldwin.
He takes the shotgun snap, rolls right and — after slowly counting to four, as if a defensive tackle was chasing him down — fires it 15 yards for a completion to Derek Niday.
Before Niday can cut upfield, though, he's grabbed by an Oakdale defensive back.
A whistle brings the play to a peaceful conclusion — then coaches from both teams hustle out to talk to their kids.
It's 7-on-7 football, where every play produces a pass and defensive backs have to resist the urge to drill the receiver. The only lineman is a center to snap the ball, and violent contact is kept to a minimum.
"We call it low-ego 7-on-7," Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. "It allows quarterbacks and receivers to work on timing their patterns, and it gets defenders in pass coverage."
It's become a summer staple in the Stanislaus District, with two to four teams meeting Wednesday night in a low-key, jamboree-style format.
"We practice a lot with ourselves, but it's more exciting to throw it against a different team," said Baldwin, a senior and the expected starter. "It's not like a real game — there's no one chasing me — but you have seven guys playing defense so you better be sharp."
Passing leagues have been around for decades, but their popularity has blossomed as more coaches put complicated passing attacks and tricky formations in their playbook.
The summer sessions also allow coaches to monitor the progress of quarterbacks and receivers, while also identifying defensive shortcomings.
Experience gained on these warm summer nights, coaches believe, will translate into success when players put on their pads come September.
Many teams take a low-key approach, but others are out for blood. High-profile tournaments attract dozens of teams and the action is as intense as any playoff game, and Texas — who is surprised by this? — is staging its 7-on-7 state championship this weekend.
No one was handing out trophies in Oakdale, but there was still plenty to be gained.
"Confidence is part of it, because you're becoming familiar with plays you'll run in the fall," said Oakdale's Nate Madsen, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound receiver. "You have a defense trying to knock you off stride, like in a real game, and you get to work on your timing."
It's particularly important for a team like Pitman, breaking in a new quarterback and receivers. The Pride also kick off their season a week earlier than most teams, visiting defending Northern Section champ Paradise on Sept. 4.
"It's my third year of passing league, but it has a different feel since I'll be the starter," said Baldwin. "I'm a perfectionist, so I run each play as if this was a real game and as if we were trying to win."
No one keeps score, but that doesn't mean these two-hour gatherings don't get serious.
"You've got your pride, and you don't want some guy running by you to catch a pass," Oakdale safety Daniel Gazdik said. "This is as real as it gets without putting the pads on."
While Oakdale has an experienced passing combination in Madsen and quarterback Tanner Combs, there's an air of urgency even though the opener is two months away.
Oakdale hosts traditional rival Turlock in Week 1, before hosting state powers Novato and Whitney of Rocklin. The trio had a combined record of 32-5 last year, while Whitney won a section title and Novato lost in a section title game.
"It looked like a great schedule when we put it together," Merzon said. "We're going to need to be playing our best ball right away to compete."
Bee staff writer Rich Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.