The Santa Cruz Pop Warner 10U team is making the trek to the Sunshine State this weekend.
But don’t think for one second this is any type of vacation to Universal Studios.
It’s more of a business trip for the Seahawks, who will battle for a national championship in the Pop Warner Super Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
“We kind of set our goal at the beginning of the year, we’re gonna go to Florida this year. That was our goal,” Santa Cruz head coach Paul Quilici said.
The Seahawks play their first game on Sunday, followed by a second game on Dec. 6. The championship game is slated for Dec. 9.
Santa Cruz is coming off a two-week break after beating the Santa Clara Panthers, 13-0, in the Pacific Northwest Division I Championship at Yerba Buena High on Nov. 12.
“We’ve been kind of just spinning our wheels practicing, keeping the kids locked in, just kind of keeping them healthy but at the same time we got to keep them fine tuned,” Quilici said.
Santa Cruz has been fundraising for the past two weeks, putting together bake sales in front of Whole Foods Market in downtown Santa Cruz, selling raffle tickets and setting up a GoFundMe page to raise $75,000 for flights, hotel accommodations and food.
“The kids are excited,” Quilici said. “A lot of them haven’t been away from mom and dad, yet. Let alone, their parents letting them go with a coach and the coach being the chaperone for the 10 days.”
This year’s roster includes 23 kids ranging from Watsonville up to the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Seahawks currently own an 11-0 record including two wins in the playoffs.
“We started fast, a lot of good pieces to the puzzle and high expectations going into the season,” Quilici said.
Players from Scotts Valley include Santino Celeri, Jackson Zirkel and Isiah Mosely, while fellow teammates Daniel Fitzgerald, Jaxon Highlander, Mateo Johnson, Leon Laver, Kai Robison, Travers Pentin and Jordan Sijher all hail from Felton, Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond.
“Those kids, they show up everyday,” Quilici said. “They have good discipline, high football IQ. They’re motivated.”
The Aptos/Santa Cruz/Soquel bunch is comprised of August Burnham, Tony Gills, Sawyer MacEwen, Max Medvidovich, Rykker Salisbury, Parker Quilici, Kaden Sweet, Aiden Rodriguez and Alex Jimenez.
The group from Watsonville includes Sage Fortino, Nico Jones and Jaxson Seadler. And let’s not forget Christopher Rogers, a 6-foot, 250-pound 10-year old two-way lineman out of Sacramento.
“They show up and they like to do work,” Quilici said. “They like to be good football players, they work on it.”
The program continues to grow with about 170 football and cheerleading participants each year.
Quilici said it starts at the top with team president Ernie Camacho, who brings in coaches that can build a good foundation.
“Finding good coaches that are not just rah-rah but also good with the kids,” Quilici said. “Just developing these kids at a younger age, teaching them proper technique.”
Santa Cruz runs the Wing T offense—a complex system for most fourth- and fifth-graders.
Quilici said it’s an advantage for them because most opponents they play line up at split backs or an I formation, which usually leads to a run straight up the middle.
“We have fakes and motions, calls to be able to do stuff on the run and change our play at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “It’s a long day for a defense if they don’t know how to defend the Wing T.”
Aptos High is known for running the Wing T offense under recently retired head coach Randy Blankenship. Central Coast Section Division II champion Soquel High also runs a version of the offense.
Quilici credits former Seahawks coaches Jake Clak, a current assistant coach at Soquel, DJ Zack and John O’Hara as the gurus of the Wing T.
Zach’s father, Dennis, brought the offensive system to Santa Cruz Pop Warner in the early 2000s and ran it for 18 years. Since then, they’ve installed a couple of new versions along the way.
The Seahawks’ program has been highly successful during that span, including four trips to the national championships starting with the junior midgets team in 2009.
The Santa Cruz 12U Seahawks went to Orlando in back-to-back seasons from 2021-22, and won the D-I national championship in 2021.
After the first regular season game, Quilici second guessed himself and wasn’t sure if this 10U team was able to go all the way. Boy, did the players prove him wrong.
Since then, Santa Cruz rallied 11 straight wins and is now just three away from winning a national championship.
“Just to make it to this trip is big enough, but I feel as a coach we’re not done yet,” Quilici said. “This team has some stuff to prove. Take it as a business trip not a vacation.”