Zone Read: Pinnacle All-Access at Camp T

Arizona Sports News online

(All photos courtesy Kenda Newbury/ @Train.N.Pics)

Payson, AZ – Camp Tontozona

Sunday 9:42AM – It isn’t quite August but, make no mistake, Arizona high school football is back, as I exit my car following a fairly seamless two-hour drive up winding Highway 87 from the Valley.

The air is thin, and crisp, as the sounds of hip hop music, coaches’ whistles, and players chattering reach a beautiful crescendo as I make my way down the gravely road to the picturesque, tree-lined field at the base of iconic Camp Tontozona.

“Camp is about setting the tone for the season. We want to make sure that all the work we did in the spring and in the summer should build up to this point. We talked about this [Saturday]. This is where we start. Everything that we do, we want to make sure we’re doing correctly from the get-go. It’s really about setting the tone with our intensity, with our discipline, with our attitude, and our effort.” – Pinnacle head coach Dana Zupke

10:17AM – Under overcast skies and with the fresh scent of rain still in the air after a heavy downpour the previous night, a smattering of parents watch intently from the north sideline as senior tight end/wide receiver Duce Robinson sprints past the secondary for a deep completion down the opposite sideline as his offensive teammates chirp their approval at Pinnacle’s first-team defense.

“It’s surreal. I remember doing [camp] coming into my freshman year. I hadn’t even entered high school yet but I remember making all those memories. Now fast forward four years later and we’re here in the same spot as the guys I looked up to my freshman year. It’s crazy to think this is my last camp.” – Duce Robinson

10:56AM – Despite working together dating back to the early months of spring, camp provides additional reps for the offense, and defense, to not only further sharpen their knowledge of the Pioneers’ schemes as the dress rehearsals shrink towards the regular season, but it also allows periods designated for timing, and rhythm, key components for Pinnacle’s first-year starting quarterback, whomever that may be.

Strong-armed 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior Ethan Wall, who flashed moxie when pressed into action late in the season, is on track take the keys to the offense, but Zupke says he is being pushed by senior Nolan Ganter, who is coming off a torn ACL injury last season.

Whoever is behind center when Pinnacle travels to southern California to take on El Camino High in Oceanside on September 2nd, will have plenty to work with.

Up front, tt’s a group which features an experienced offensive line. The headliner is massive 6-foot-7, 304-pound Notre Dame commit, senior tackle Elijah Paige, as well as a core of talented juniors to team with him.

The skill talent is deep and productive. Running back Jacobie Rucker (11 touchdowns in 2021 as a junior), the before mentioned Robinson (the state’s overall top 2023 recruit), as well as fellow senior and future college baller, wide receiver Myles Libman (870 receiving yards, nine touchdowns last fall), will keep the chains moving this fall.  

11:24AM – Libman, the younger brother of former Pinnacle standout Marcus Libman, now a junior wide receiver at Columbia, is wearing one white cleat, and one blue cleat, as he chats with teammates following the conclusion of PHS’s first full morning practice.

So, of course, “Zone Read” just had to ask.

“It’s kind of just a style thing. Just being different because that used to be one of the biggest things. Everyone used to compare me to Marcus. So I would find every way to be different. So that’s why I changed my hair, then I would change my cleats. But now I kind of like being compared to Marcus because I really respect his game and how he played.” – Myles Libman

12:03PM – “Rustic” Camp T. is quite the lifestyle change, particularly the meals, which are served in a no frills, old-school cafeteria which sits on the side of a hill just a short walk from the field.

The modest-sized open room, decorated with blown up ASU football action photos is stuffy and filled with a large collection of annoying flies who are more than happy to invade/disrupt/annoy the lunch goers. If they don’t get to you, the swarming bees who reside on the front deck likely will.

Sunday’s second meal (Pinnacle eats four a day at camp) is hot dogs, potato salad, mixed green salad, and a small dessert. 

12:11PM – The players quietly, and respectfully, form a surprisingly organized, single-line which wraps around the inside of the cafeteria and slowly proceed to the front of the room to be served. I watch from the coaches’ table as the chatter of another less than appetizing meal awaits Zupke and his staff after the players are served first.

“I haven’t heard a peep about complaints from the kids [about the food]. I think they’re just so excited to be in a camp environment. I think they just take what’s thrown at them. They’re a lot more adaptable and maybe pliable than some of my staff. They need to toughen up a little bit (laughing). – Zupke

12:34PM – The last of the players have filed out of the cafeteria but Zupke, and his assistants, stay back to talk about the afternoon practice schedule, as well as joke about the fact a few players and their teenage friends recently watched (and loved), the 1982 comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

12:48PM – Next stop is a trip over to the players’ cabins which are separated by class years. The upperclassmen lodging I’m told is “nicer,” but it’s hard to tell with most of the lights off and music blaring as I make my way to the 2024 quarters to catch up with long-time family friend, and PHS junior starting right tackle, Frankie Gleash.

One of Camp T’s restrictions, being located 20 miles east of Payson just off Highway 260, is spotty, limited cell service and no Wi-Fi. Pinnacle’s staff can’t hold film study with their players during their time together up north. But, at least on Day 2 of camp, the players seemed mostly fine “roughing it” away from the more comfortable confines of home. 

“It’s cool. It’s definitely different. It’s a cool retreat from what we’re used to. You know, we’re used to it being 110 [degrees]. So, it’s different to be out here and get some rain. There’s trees all over the place. It’s really cool.” – Robinson

1:14PM – It’s time to head over to the coaches’ cabin for a little stop and chat. The rectangular housing unit has a living area with sofas and chairs in the middle, book ended by bedrooms on either side with bathrooms.

The living quarters feature two sets of twin-sized bunk beds and plenty of floor fans to keep the warming afternoon air circulating out the windows when the coaches are away.

Some of the staff have shut it down for a quick pre-afternoon practice power nap, while the others chat or flip through their phones, passing time before changing, grabbing their favorite bucket hat, and making the short walk back down the hill to the field.

1:35PM – Justin Timberlake, then “Guns N’ Roses” blares from the players’ cabins as they begin stirring in preparation for the next practice. The group seems ready to get back to work at the top of the hour.

1:47PM – I take a seat at a picnic table in the back of the shaded west end zone. The mid-morning cloudy skies have opened and the heat resonates off the now sun-splashed turf surface.

From the adjacent hill, the players begin trickling down from their cabins like ants in formation.

Offensive line coach Paul Germinaro, who also doubles as the official DJ at practice, starts the afternoon mix as the ‘Neers begin their pre-practice stretch.

2:32PM – In practice, I notice a few of the coaches huddling on the sideline and, a few moments later, Zupke calls the entire squad to break out of their position drills and meet at midfield.

While I can’t hear exactly what the 17-year PHS head coach is saying to his team, it’s obvious from the teams’ reaction, something “fun” is about to happen at practice.

After a few small technical issues with the music (Coach Germ’s cell phone was having issues connecting to the speaker’s Bluetooth connection due to the now direct sun over the field), the much anticipated camp “dance off” begins.

— Eric Sorenson (@EricSports360AZ) August 1, 2022

Zupke has built in the practice schedule “once or twice a week” various fun activities to keep the mood light during the grind of the camp and throughout the season.

3:41PM – It’s nearing the back end of the workout, and the time has come for me to start getting ready to complete my day trip to eastern Arizona.

As usual, the Pioneers’ schedule is daunting (Liberty, Queen Creek, Horizon, Highland, Saguaro, among others) but there is plenty of talent returning and experience at key positions to improve on last season’s rare losing campaign.

Camp is about improving as a team on the field but, more importantly, an opportunity for the players to sharpen their minds and continue to grow and mature into young men in an unfamiliar environment, as well.

“As far as X’s and O’s, [camp] is really all about the mental side…doing the right things, as far as camp behavior. It’s pure supervision. We’re counting on the kids to police themselves. So, there’s a lot of responsibility bestowed upon them when they’re up here at camp.” – Zupke

That’s a wrap from Camp T.

Thanks again, Pinnacle football, for letting “Zone Read” tag along for a day.