When the Chandler Raiders 12 and under flag football team departed for Florida to take part in two tournaments, they had their sights set on returning with a national title.
The 12U team fell in the quarterfinal round of the National Flag Football Championships in Tampa, Fla. The 11U Raiders team placed second overall in the tournament. A week later in Orlando during NFL Pro Bowl week, the 12U team redeemed themselves.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, the Raiders became the first East Valley flag football team to win the NFL Flag Football national championship since 2013.
“We had to get everyone back up and encouraged to go play again,” said Percy Knox, an assistant coach for the Chandler Raiders. “I was concerned at first how we would adjust playing in one tournament before another. The kids did a great job refocusing and coming together to realize what they had to do.”
The Raiders were among eight teams that qualified for the tournament from around the country. Two other teams, the Playmakers Gilbert Elite and Tucson Turf, also there to represent Arizona.
All three teams from Arizona made it to the semifinals along with the Red Zone Elite All-Stars from Miami. The Raiders defeated Red Zone in the championship game, 7-6.
“This team took a lot of time and effort to get ready,” Knox said. “We had played five of these teams in the past. We knew they would throw some new stuff at us, but we knew how to match up with them.”
The Raiders arrived in Orlando looking to bounce back after a tough finish to the tournament in Tampa the week prior. They started 2-0 in pool play before losing just before the start of the official tournament. Despite the loss, they were awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the single-elimination bracket.
Their first taste of redemption came against the Huron Valley Bengals from Michigan, who had previously knocked them out of the same tournament. The Raiders then moved on to the semifinals to take on Tucson Turf, who had beaten them in their last two meetings. A strong defensive effort led to a 7-6 win for the Raiders and a spot in the national title game.
Once again, the Raiders defense flexed its muscle against a Red Zone team that had averaged just over 25 points per game leading up to the final. Red Zone was held to just six points and one first down, as the Raiders capitalized on an extra-point attempt to take the lead and ultimately the win by a narrow, 7-6, margin.
The win over Red Zone in the championship was, in many ways, revenge for the Raiders. In Tampa the week before, Red Zone was the team that ended their hopes of advancing to the semifinals in that national tournament.
“They definitely wanted revenge,” Knox said. “They knew what the challenge was going up against them. As plays were happening, they were excited and focused on encouraging each other. They kept the momentum up.”
Knox credited every player for their determination and ability to focus despite spending two weeks in Florida. Not to mention, they bounced back quick after a disappointing finish to the first tournament.
The trip to Florida was special overall for the Raiders, as each player got a chance to attend the NFL Pro Bowl Skills Challenges in the days leading up to the annual All-Star game. The boys will enjoy the title now before moving on to the club’s tackle football team in the spring, where they hope to replicate the success they had this winter.
“The fact that we were able to make it to the elite 8 is difficult in itself,” Knox said. “Then to turn around and do what we did in the way we did it, to me it was amazing.”