If life is a compilation of goals dreamed and achieved, then the members of Santa Cruz’ Pop Warner Seahawks have set themselves up for a life of success.
On Dec. 12, the team of 24 Santa Cruz County kids rocked the Camping World Stadium in Orlando with a decisive win over the Florida-based team from Port Charlotte, making the 12U Santa Cruz Seahawks only the second team in the club’s history to make it to the finals, and the first-ever Santa Cruz team to win the Division 1 national title in 54 years.
Game one, the Seahawks took on the Danbury Trojans from Connecticut, putting the opposing team to bed with a 31-6 win. Next, the Seahawks met the Westlake Chaps out of Texas, where the final score was 33-6.
That left the Seahawks facing off against the Port Charlotte Bandits from Florida, where the home team advantage was dismissed by the rough-and-tumble kids from Santa Cruz County.
The final score in the Pop Warner Super Bowl was 28-8, bringing a close to the season that placed the team in the annals of Pop Warner history.
The team’s fundraising goal was around $62,000, but the flights and hotels were more expensive than anticipated; ultimately, they earned enough to cover the trip with very little left to spare.
Head Coach Jake Clark’s goal was just to get the players and coaches there safely, and not have any out-of-pocket costs for families, but the administrative effort to make sure players and coaches got to Florida safely was a little more than Clark expected.
“It was tough to mobilize flights for 38 people, but once we got there, it was important that the kids had fun, and stayed focused on the goal. We got them up early to acclimate to the time difference each day, and we were locked in from the start,” said Clark.
Clark and Assistant Head Coach D.J. Zack said they never doubted their players. The duo has been coaching together for many years; in fact, Zack coached Clark when he was a kid, but this is a new high for them both.
“Our team won the D-1 title in 2018, and we won the Best of the West in 2017. We’ve had a lot of good years together—we’ve only lost maybe four games in the past nine years. So a lot of success, but nothing on this level,” said Clark.
Members of the Seahawks grinned as they recalled the adventure of going from Universal Studios, to mini-golf, to the pool and on to the championship game.
“It felt good to win the championship because we’ve been working hard all season,” Keandre Bailey, a running back, linebacker and the youngest player on the roster, said. “The pre-game pep talk was pretty calm because the coaches believed in all of us and knew we had the power to win. I feel really proud of my team, and they’re all my brothers.”
The team is not “big on talking,” Clark said.
“I’ve always believed that you win in practice, so most of the talking and teaching we do is on practice days. If you instill confidence in your players, there’s not much left to say on game day,” he said. “Ultimately, if you put the time and effort in, you can accomplish amazing things. When we first started on this journey, people told us we couldn’t win a Division 2 title locally. We did that, and moved on to D-1, and we kept setting our goals higher and higher. If someone tells you that you can’t do something, you should strive to do it.”
Lazaro Faraj-Washington, also a running back and linebacker, shared his own pre-game perspective.
“My coach asked if I was nervous, and I said I was. Coach said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be nervous if you trust me,’ and that brought my confidence up,” he said. “I felt like I played better after that. I had a great time just playing the games.”
Chase Peterson, who plays running back on offense, and cornerback on defense, agreed with his teammates.
“Once we let go and trusted our coach, we were just a better team,” he said. “It felt great to bond with everyone on this trip.”
The team already has its eye on the prize for 2022: they start off-season training in January, and they’re hoping to use the power of their win to maneuver their way towards another successful run towards the championships.
“Our goal is to keep them together for as long as possible,” said Clark. “We consider ourselves a family, and we try to stay connected with parents and players year round. Now that we’ve won, we’re the team that everyone is hunting, so we need to come back stronger and faster. We get to celebrate now, and get back to work next month.”