The North Long Beach Pop Warner 14U football team is hoping to make history in 2023.
The undefeated Panthers are made up of 33 teenage boys from Orange and Los Angeles counties. With a 10-0 record, the team has earned a chance to compete for their sport’s top prize. Later this week, the players are slated to travel to Orlando, Florida to play in the National Pop Warner Super Bowl.
If the Panthers win it all, the boys would be the first 14U team from the North Long Beach league to capture the national championship, according to the team’s head coach Gabriel Villalobos.
Villalobos is a long-time youth football coach who has twice taken teams to the tournament in Florida but has never won the title. He thinks his team that only formed last spring can go all the way because of the boys’ good attitudes and their ability to play together.
“The bond is there. They definitely play for each other and that’s a plus,” Villalobos, a volunteer coach, said in a recent Zoom interview.
To get to the “Super Bowl,” a team must win its respective League Championship as well as the Regional Championship, according to Pop Warner. While the Panthers earned their spot by scoring touchdowns and making effective tackles, talent isn’t the only thing they need to get on the gridiron in Florida.
It also takes money. Each player is asked to pay about $1,000 to compete in the tournament, according to Keegan McInnis, whose son is on the team.
Adding to the challenge is that the team just secured their spot in the Super Bowl earlier this month. “It puts a lot of pressure on the coaches and the families,” McInnis said in a Zoom interview. "The way it’s all organized through Pop Warner is very frustrating and stressful. Even now, because our region qualifies last through national Pop Warner, we are having to fight for our hotel accommodations," McInnis wrote in a text message.
McInnis set up a GoFundMe page for the Panthers with a goal of raising $20,000 for the trip. So far, a little more than $2,500 has been donated and the Panthers are due to play their first game in Orlando on Dec. 4. The team has also been hosting fundraising events.
“As one can imagine, this is an incredibly unique and momentous opportunity for these young men who are playing their last year in youth football before they move into their high school careers and education,” reads part of the message on the GoFundMe page. It goes on to state: “All funds raised through this fundraiser will go towards funding these young men’s travel costs while they continue their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For at least three of the team’s players, this is a second shot at that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Jordan McInnis, 14, Braydon Johnson, 15, and Marques Torres, 14, were all teammates last season when their 13U Los Alamitos Pop Warner team competed in the Pop Warner Super Bowl. Their trip to Florida ended with a 48-40 loss in the semifinals in a match that had multiple overtimes, according to Keegan McInnis.
“Half our team got sick the day before the game,” he recalled. He said the loss has provided “added motivation” for the players this season.
In a recent interview over Zoom, the three boys, all students at Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange, were pumped up to play.
“I’m thankful because last year when we lost it was a winnable game,” Marques said with determination. “Hopefully we can be successful this year.”
“I’m grateful to have a second opportunity,” Jordan said. “Hopefully I can do my best and help my team out,” the linebacker added.
“We have been working hard all season,“ Braydon, who plays wide receiver, said. “I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Braydon and the other players gave credit to the coaches. “They help you and they give you chances,” the eighth grader said. “If you’re in a struggle, they help you get out of it.”
Villalobos has coached since 2006 and said he’s had help from his wife as well as his many assistant coaches this season. Some are coaches in the football program at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower. Villalobos said the lessons the coaches are trying to teach the kids go beyond the playing field.
“Honestly one of the biggest things we tried to instill in them [is] it’s bigger than winning the national championship,” Villalobos said, emphasizing that it’s about what they will learn from the experience that they can take with them into the next phase of their lives – in high school and beyond.
Villalobos made a point to say that his players aren’t just stellar athletes. “They are student-athletes and they do take school seriously. They work hard in the classroom, too,” he said.
McInnis praised Villalobos for the time and effort he and the other coaches put into this season. “Enough can’t be said about the coaches, about how much they gave and dedicated to these boys,” he said.
“The ultimate goal for me has always been supporting the boys and this group of parents has allowed us to do that,” Villalobos said. “I think the parents are awesome.”
The boys say they feel prepared for the challenge ahead but would welcome donations and support from the community. “I want the community to know that we have worked really hard and that we are ready to go and win this as a team,” Jordan said.
“We’re a hard-working team,” said Marques, who plays on the defensive line. “We worked hard to get here. And we would be very thankful if you would support us.”
Visit the team’s GoFundMe page here.
Watch the Pop Warner Super Bowl games streaming online here.
See the Panthers in action on their Instagram account.