Move over, Chandler National Little League, there’s another East Valley youth team vying for a national championship.
Armed with a sparkling 12-0 record, the Mesa Eastern Moccasins Pop Warner football team is headed for Orlando, Fla., this weekend as one of the eight regional champions remaining in youth football’s tournament leading to the Super Bowl on Dec. 10.
“If this were Little League, we would be going to Williamsport,” said Moccasins coach Kevin Resendez, referring to the Pennsylvania town that has played host to baseball’s Little League World Series each August for decades.
“We are a pretty good little team,” Resendez said during practice this week at Hawthorne Elementary School. “We peaked at the right time, in the playoffs. They have just kept building on that.”
The Mesa kids, most of whom attend Stapley or Taylor junior high schools, now face a team from Manassas, Va., in a quarterfinal game on Sunday. A win puts them into Wednesday’s semifinals and a victory away from the national championship.
Pop Warner football is the largest youth football league in the nation for players ages 13 and younger. The organization now conducts state and regional tournaments, capped by a week-long national tournament.
But do these kids feel any pressure?
“It just makes me more excited to play,” 12-year-old defensive tackle Robert Heslin said. “They’ve just narrowed it down and we’re still playing.”
“It just amazes me,” 12-year-old nose guard Richard Winston said.
The Moccasins, whose team members reside from the northern to the southern border of Mesa roughly between Greenfield and Gilbert roads, won all seven of their regular-season games. A defensive-minded team, the group of 12- and 13-year-olds gave up just 25 points in those seven outings.
Asked to describe their most memorable moment so far, Winston and Heslin came up with a big defensive stop. After taking a 6-0 lead on the team from Temecula, Calif., the opponents drove to the Moccasins' 1-yard line in the second quarter.
“On fourth down, they ran it right through me and Richard,” Winston said. “And we stopped them. That would have tied the game.”
That lead held up after a scoreless second half.
After the regular season, the Mesa team beat three Valley teams to win the state championship out of 40 junior midget Pop Warner teams in Arizona.
“After the state championship, the kids said, ‘Hey, why not us?’ ” Resendez said. “I think they have just been feeding off that.”
The Moccasins then defeated Santa Margarita, Calif., 21-14 in a Western region semifinal held in Glendale on Nov. 19 before beating the previously unbeaten Temecula team in a game played in Murrieta, Calif.
The team is scoring nearly 30 points per game while giving up less than a touchdown.
“Why shouldn’t these kids win?” Resendez said. “They’re 12 and 13 years old. At 12 or 13, across the board, it doesn’t matter where you are born or where you’re from. You’re 12 or 13. We’ve got a good bunch of them.”
As opposed to Little League baseball, where an all-star team is picked to compete after the regular season, in youth football the same team plays together for the entire season.
As with most youth programs, parents and a handful of sponsors help fund the league. The Mesa Eastern team has raised several thousand dollars for the trip to Florida but still needs about $16,000 more to cover all of its expenses, league president Cheryl Resendez said.
The league has set up an account at Bank of America to take donations and had a fundraiser at Sluggo’s bar and grill earlier in the week.
The national Pop Warner association says it has more than 380,000 children ages 5 to 16 playing football or in its cheer and dance programs in 41 states and foreign countries.
There are several levels with junior midget right below midget, although many of those eligible for that level already are playing with their freshman high school teams.