The Juneau Youth Football League senior division 49ers leave on Monday for the National Youth Football Championships in Las Vegas.
The players have been preparing for the tournament as soon as the JYFL season ended in early October. Twenty-two players were selected out of a pool 50 eligible players for the travel team, which includes around 10 of the players that won the 13U Central Division at the tournament last year.
Head coach Chris Connally, whose son James plays on the team, said they’ve practiced for weeks without knowing for sure they would be attending.
But, after reaching its fundraising goal earlier this month, the JYFL board approved the travel. Connally said this year’s team — while not as physically imposing of the JYFL team last year that went by the Raiders — is athletic, deep and driven. Many of the players come straight from Dzantik’i Heeni or Floyd Dryden Middle School basketball practice to football practice.
“This year we can plug a lot of kids in in different positions and they can go out there and succeed,” Chris Connally said. “It’s not just going to be one player dominating the whole game for us.”
The Raiders defeated the Camarillo Cougars from California and Anthem Cougars from Las Vegas last year.
The tournament — which began in 1972 — guarantees two games to every team that enters. Three-team “conferences” are formed with teams that share the same age and weight classes.
Quarterback James Connally said the sizes of teams worried him at first during last year’s tournament.
“It’s fun to see the sizes of the other teams and it’s kinda nervous because how big the other teams are compared to how big your team is,” James Connally said. “It’s just fun to go down there and play.”
The team practiced on the Adair-Kennedy turf as late as Nov. 4, by which time a sheet of frost covered the field. Running back Esteban “Gaby” Soto, who scored with under 10 seconds left in the game against the Camarillo Cougars last year, said there are some advantages to moving practice inside.
“It was hard at first, but after a couple — like two practices — we got used to it,” Soto said. “I think it’s better for us so we can get used to the heat.”
Connally said he prepares for this tournament differently than he would for games in Juneau.
“It’s nice being able to go down there and let the kids play in the nice heat and sunshine and we can air the ball out a little bit,” Connally said. “It’s a good confidence builder for them going into high school next year or into eighth grade knowing that we were able to come down and compete with those boys down there.”
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.