JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The coronavirus did its best to knock the Pop Warner football season off track, but two area teams are still going strong in December.
On Sunday in Central Florida, a pair of local squads will begin their pursuit to bring championships back to the area.
The Forestview Outlaws mitey mites are playing in the semifinals for the second time since 2015. The Westside Wildcats junior peewees are looking to bolster a growing national profile with another trip into the final four.
Westside (10-0) will face the Gary (Indiana) Steelers in the Mid-America/Southeast semifinals on Sunday at 11 a.m. in St. Cloud. Forestview (10-0) will face the LaPorte (Indiana) Slicers at 4 p.m. in Winter Garden. Victories in those games will send them on to championship matches on Wednesday.
It’s a much different season for Pop Warner in general. The national championship, typically held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports compound, was canceled due to COVID-19, with only the national cheerleading competition going forward. But select regions of Pop Warner put together their own year-ending event and set the table for a modified championship tournament.
“To these kids, they are champions regardless of COVID-19 [changing things],” said Shawn Fountain, head coach of the Westside Wildcats. “That’s all that matters to me. They’ve had a full season and now they’ll have the experience of going out of town and having that experience of playing for a championship.”
It took quite a bit of fundraising in a short window of time to be able to pull off such a big trip for two dozen players, but Fountain said numerous businesses chipped in, sponsors stepped up and parents went into fundraising mode.
Once the teams arrive in central Florida, it’s all about two things — playing football and being able to experience times with family and teammates.
When the ball is snapped, though, it’s all business.
In the mitey mites division (ages 7 to 9 years old), the Outlaws are rolling into the final four. In the junior peewee group (ages can range from 8 to 11), the Wildcats are on a similar path.
“We feel good. Right now, we’re playing our best football,” said Outlaws coach Deante Hampton Sr. “I feel like whatever is in front of us, we’ll be all right.”
On top of winning the city championship over Westside, 21-0, the Outlaws coasted in regionals and the regional championship. They beat the Sarasota Sun Devils 39-8 to punch their ticket to the national event.
“Very excited. Last week, they enjoyed themselves at regionals and they are so excited about what’s coming up,” Hampton said. “The way they play together, there ain’t no selfishness. They’re all one. They’re just learning and listening. Just smart. It’s the best group of kids I’ve coached and I’ve been to nationals before.”
Hampton was an assistant coach on the 2015 Forestview junior peewee squad that lost to Virginia Beach, 12-8. That game, he said, showed him just how much it takes to win in the finale. Forestview led nearly the entire game before Virginia Beach rallied to win it.
As for Westside, Fountain has been in this spot before.
But this season was quite a bit different than just rolling through the competition. There was a learning curve and a lot of new faces, both in the lineup and on the sidelines.
For starters, the Wildcats had to replace not only a chunk of their roster, but essentially remake the coaching staff, too. Players age out or become too heavy to play in the one class and move up. When that player moves up, that usually means their parent or guardian moves up as well. And that parent or guardian, many times, serves as a coach.
“The biggest challenges for us this year wasn’t the opposition we were playing, it was two things,” Fountain said.
“Dealing with weight restrictions, a lot of these kids had to be on strict diets that they were not used to. Then once we actually started playing, some kids may have been superstars on their old team and they didn’t have as big of a role on this team. Once kids understood it was bigger than then, they understood the common goal, it was on.”