WARREN, NJ - The Watchung Hills Pop Warner Junior Varsity team prevailed in their Saturday Semi-final game improving to 10-1 on the season with a win over the PA state champs the Juniata Thundercats, 36-6. The Wolverines now advance to their fourth straight Eastern Region Championship game and are the only team in the 45-year history of the program to earn four trips to the region finals. Game Captains were Billy Black, Sherrod Hudson, James Palaia, and Mac McAteer.
The Junior Varsity team will compete for a Regional Championship on Friday, November 24 at 3 p.m. in Marsh Creek, PA. They will face the NY state champs, either the Irondequoit Lancers from Rochester or the Geddes/Westvale Knights from Syracuse.
Regional champs earn a berth in the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Florida December 1-8. These Wolverines advanced to Disney in 2016 at the Pee Wee level and in 2014 at Junior Pee Wee. In 2015, they lost the Regional finals to Ward 5 from Washington, DC. Both trips to Disney saw the Wolverines lose to the eventual National Champion. In 2014 it was a team from Chicago and last season the champs were from Miami.
Palaia received the opening kick-off and had a strong return to about mid-field. Moving the ball well on the initial drive, the Wolverines faced a key fourth and one in Thundercats territory. Palaia powered through for the first down followed by a Hudson sweep to the sideline for another first down. Jake Checchio made the key block on the touchdown run as it was Palaia again with the ball and the score for the Wolverines. Will Grabko nailed the 2-point conversion kick and Watchung was out in front 8-0.
The Juniata Thundercats took possession and moved the ball with a few strong runs. A breakdown in formation allowed the Thundercat running back a clear lane right through the middle of the field. A 50-yard touchdown run had the Pennsylvania champs fired up. Their point-after attempt was foiled by Checchio who intercepted a pass but Juniata had cut the lead to 8-6.
Momentum had definitely swung Juniata’s way as they recovered the ensuing on-sides kick. Things were getting a little scary for the Wolverines as the Thundercats completed a long pass-play down to the Wolverine 12 yard line and they were threatening to take the lead. The Watchung defense rose to the occasion with Hudson making a dynamic tackle on the edge. Jackson Steele hustled in to help finish the key defensive play. Juniata was forced into a fourth and long to finish the first quarter. The Wolverines made another defensive stop and forced Juniata to turn the ball over on downs.
Watchung took possession to begin the second quarter and executed a 90-yard touchdown drive. The touchdown play was a 20-yard pass from Ty Marion to a wide open Jamarques Lawrence. Grabko made another conversion kick and the Wolverines were ahead by 10 points at 16-6.
Chris Hopf kicked-off for Watchung and sent a hard bouncing ball toward the Thundercats. The receiver was unable to catch it and McAteer was right there to dive on the free ball. The Wolverines were back on offense with great field position. Another solid Watchung drive resulted in a Palaia touchdown run, this time assisted by key blocks from Hudson, McAteer, and Elhanan Wilson. The score was 22-6.
Hopf’s next on-side kick was not struck very well and appeared to be a Watchung penalty for the ball not traveling the required 10 yards. The ball journeyed so slowly that the Thundercat player assumed it would not make it across the line; but it did. The Wolverines quickly fell on the ball inches over the line and had possession yet again.
The Wolverines executed another successful drive as Jamarcus Lawrence hit McAteer for a first down. Watchung was trying to put the game out of reach as they raced against the clock. But, a Thundercat interception brought the game to the half with the Wolverines winning 22-6.
Juniata was supposed to take possession to begin the third quarter of play but Hopf nailed an on-sides kick and the Thundercats were scrambling to pick it up. Lawrence recovered the ball and Watchung took over with great field position. Watchung’s ‘Hammer-team’ completed a strong offensive drive and Black carried for the team’s fourth touchdown. Grabko made another 2-point kick and Watchung was leaving no doubt as they took a commanding 30-6 lead.
The Thundercats were unable to field the next kick-off and Watchung got it back yet again. Now it was back-up quarterback Kaden Everly running the offense with the big lead and the Wolverines drove down the field once more. Black ran it in for another touchdown and Watchung moved in front 36-6 at the end of the third quarter.
Down by 30 in the fourth, Juanita turned the ball over on downs. The ‘Hammer-team’ ran the ball and the clock the rest of the way. McAteer carried for a first down run to seal the deal.
The win improved their four year record to 46-5 and the Wolverines are eyeing 50 wins over this 4-year span. Winning the Region this week and 3 wins in Florida would get them there.
If the Wolverines can win again on Friday, it would be only the fourth time a football squad has advanced to the Nationals in Florida. The only other team to qualify in the 45 year history of the program was the 2006 Junior Pee Wee team which made it to the final game. The 2017 Junior Varsity team also qualified in 2014 and 2016.
Eight boys are looking to make their third trip to Disney. They are: Dylan Braunstein, Elhanan Wilson, Johnny King, Anthony Bateh, Kaden Every, Billy Black, Mac McAteer, and Tyler Marion.
Joining the team in either 2015 or 2016 and looking to make their second trip to Disney are: Nasir Maryland, Jake Checchio, Jamarques Lawrence, James Palaia, Xavier Ainsworth, Sherrod Hudson, Chris Hopf, Joe Pizzigoni, Gianluca Melo, and Will Grabko.
The new crew this year includes: Tyshaun Anderson, Aqili Holmes, Jackson Steele, and Damon Schumann who are all trying to get to Disney for the first time.