MARSH CREEK, PA - Describing the 99-yard offensive drive, in a tie game, to score the game-winning touchdown as epic or legendary is not exaggeration. That is exactly what the Watchung Hills Pop Warner Pee Wees did on Saturday when they beat the Irondequoit Lancers, 22-14, to become Eastern Region Pop Warner Champions.
The Watchung Hills Pop Warner Pee Wee team is only the third team in the 36 year history of the program to earn a spot in the youth Super Bowl at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The team will practice in New Jersey this week and then travel to Florida as the Eastern Region Champions. The National Championship Tournament is scheduled for December 3-10, 2016.
Beating Ward 5 from Washington, DC; North Rockland, NY; and then Irondequoit (pronounced: I-ron-de-coy) from Rochester, NY; over three consecutive weeks is a spectacular achievement for the Pee Wee team! The Championship game victory over Irondequoit was the most difficult as the Wolverines improved to 10-1 on the season with the 22-14 win. Game captains were Jamarques Lawrence, James Palaia, Sherrod Hudson, and Billy Black.
The Wolverines were prepared to receive the opening kick-off but the short; pop-up landed between Watchung players and was recovered by Irondequoit. Benefiting from what turned out to be an on-sides kick; the Lancers scored a touchdown in only seven plays. Their conversion kick missed but the New York team took an early 6-0 lead.
The Watchung Hills Pee Wees, seemingly unfazed, responded with a nice drive using the “Hammer-Team.” The power offense drove the ball straight down the field as Lawrence and Black carried for multiple first-down runs. Solid blocks were executed up front by the entire offensive line. All blockers were speedy off the ball and they included: FB, Jake Memoli; LTE, Gianluca Melo; LT, Xavier Ainsworth; LG, William Grabko; C, Jake Checchio; RG, Sherrod Hudson; RT, James Palaia; and RTE, Mac McAteer. Black ran for the touchdown and the Wolverines tied it at six.
Adjusting to the physical style, the Wolverines raised their level of play during the second defensive series. Irondequoit was forced into a fourth and long around mid-field as several Wolverine defenders were in on the action. McAteer, Black, Palaia, Lawrence, Hudson, and Dylan Braunstein all contributed tackles. Anthony Bateh broke up a pass-play down the field and the Lancers dropped back to punt. A trick-play, fake punt was unsuccessful as the Wolverines were ready and Watchung took over with good field position as the first quarter came to a close.
It did not take the Wolverines long to score on the next drive as Palaia ripped off a first down run and Hudson followed with a 15-yard TD burst to put Watchung in front 12-6. Connecting on the conversion kick, Grabko made it 14-6 after another perfect snap from center, James Carbone.
Elhanan Wilson and Julian Sanchez were forceful on the defensive side during the next Irondequoit drive each recording solid tackles. The dangerous passing attack did connect on a long pass play but they were foiled on fourth down by the Wolverine secondary as Lawrence, Bateh, and John King guarded against another long pass attempt downfield. Watchung would take over on downs with a few minutes to go before the half.
The Wolverines threatened to score prior to the half as Quarterback, Ty Marion connected on a 30-yard pass to Lawrence but time ran out as Watchung was trying to get off another play and they had to settle for a 14-6 halftime lead.
Starting the second half in very much the same way as they did the game, Irondequoit took the ball right down the field in fairly easy fashion. They scored a touchdown, completed the 2-point kick, and tied the game 14-14. Thereafter, the Wolverines seemed to have another promising drive going as Joseph Pizzigoni filled-in in the backfield at 4-back, but unfortunately, Watchung turned it over on downs to Irondequoit.
As the third period was coming to a close, Irondequoit was advancing the ball yet again. This was a big, strong, and physical team; perhaps the best squad Watchung has faced all year. What transpired next will be remembered for years to come… Poised to score, the Lancers ran to the right toward the goal-line. It is still unclear exactly how the ball came out but the Irondequoit runner fumbled and a massive scrum ensued for the loose ball. Battling for the ball was vicious as the referees pealed back bodies from the pile. Eventually, an official pointed in Watchung’s direction, the Wolverine sideline exploded with cheers, and Mac McAteer climbed out of the pack with the ball and possession for his team.
Starting their drive on the 1-yard line was a little perilous at first but gradually the Wolverines moved the ball downfield. Watchung gained confidence and momentum when Palaia carried for a 40-yard run. That big play was sparked by the right side of the offensive line which included: Dylan Simon, Memoli, and tight end, McAteer. Next, running away from tight end, and keeping the Lancers off balance, Hudson carried for the go ahead touchdown as King, Memoli, and Simon cleared the right side. Grabko nailed the conversion kick and Watchung led 22-14 with 5:15 to play. The 99-yard scoring drive is the longest on the season and couldn’t have come a more noteworthy time.
The Irondequoit Lancers took over possession and were clearly determined to tie the game. Strong defensive plays on this series came from Chris Hopf and Nasir Maryland, both recording big tackles as time began to run out on the Rochester, NY team. The Lancers went to the air-attack with just over two minutes to go and Kaden Everly pressured their quarterback in the backfield as he dropped back to pass. Irondequoit’s long pass attempt did have a receiver in the area but safety, Jamarques Lawrence would have none of it. J-mar timed his jump perfectly and hauled in a game-saving interception. The Wolverines took possession and needed only to advance it for a single first down to clinch the victory.
Billy Black secured the ball powerfully on a first down run. Irondequoit found themselves out of timeouts and with no way to stop the clock, time ran out on their season. The Watchung Hills Wolverines were victorious in dramatic fashion, they were Eastern Region Champions, and were Disney bound for the second time in three seasons.
The victory is historic for several reasons. The 2016 team is only the third team in program history to earn a Disney berth. They join 2006 and 2014 as the only other teams to qualify. The 2016 team is the first ever to qualify at the older, Pee Wee level. As the boys grow and mature it becomes increasingly difficult to win this late in the season. The 2016 team is the first ever to repeat as Disney participants. There’s a core group of nine boys who played on the 2014 Junior Pee Wee team that went to Florida and currently plays for this year’s Pee Wee championship squad.
The interesting link between all three Disney teams is the coaching staff. Head Coach, Andy Marion, and Offensive Coordinator, Dave Reed, have been in charge of all three groups. In 2006, their now college-age sons played for the first group to win the Eastern Regions. Marion’s younger son, Tyler was the quarterback in 2014 and again now in 2016. To his credit, Coach Reed has no children on the current team but still commits his time and football acumen to the program.
The team is now 35-3 in the last three seasons and has the goal of winning a National Championship. There are eight regions that send teams to Disney for the event. It takes three wins in Florida to win the Super Bowl title. Needless to say, but the level of play is elite and winning it all is rare. We wish the team good luck as they travel to Florida for the tournament games December 3-10.