Last Sunday's Southern New England Youth Football Conference Championship game at Camp Oakdale in Montville wasn't exactly the Superbowl. No, for East Lyme, it was better than that!
The second-seeded East Lyme Youth Football Juniors went up against Killingly and totally shut their rivals out in a game that ended 6-0, giving East Lyme its first football win in three years.
"Between then and now, no East Lyme team had made the playoffs," said Junior division head coach Mike Catanzaro. "We had two years where they won it, two years where no team made the playoffs. This team last year was one in seven. They went from one in seven to being champions!"
On November 11, the Montville stadium was packed and not just with parents. There were football fans of all ages, with and without kids, and high school cheerleaders, faces painted, all chanting for East Lyme's Junior team. At times the roar of the crowd was so loud that coaches had to use hand signals to communicate with the players because no one could hear a thing on the field.
"The team we beat was the number one seed in our division and in the two previous play off games, they had scored 90 points: they had scored 39 points in the first playoff, and 51 in the second, and we didn’t give them nothing, zilch, zero," said Catanzaro.
The turning point for this plucky team of 33 sixth, seventh and eighth graders this season came not with a victory but with a defeat. The East Lyme Juniors started out strong with a 34-0 win over Ledyard but in the third game they faced New London, which is always considered the team to beat.
By the end of the first quarter against New London, three of East Lyme's starters were out of the game.
"We saw our best players go down and other kids who hadn’t played much and some who had to play different positions stepped in," said Catanzaro. "And we fought them the last three quarters tooth and nail."
East Lyme lost that game but by just one point, and that was scored in the final minutes.
"After that they believed in each other," Catanzaro said. "It gave the team trust in each other and we grew as a family. You do whatever it takes to help your brother. These kids did not play for themselves this year. They played for the brother to the left and the brother to the right. That was our whole team spirit."
The night of the championship game, before the team took the field, Catanzaro drove that message home one last time.
"What I told the kids before we came on to the field was, 'Look your brother in the eye, look all of your brothers in the eye, and without saying a word let them know you are fighting for them today,'" Catanzaro said.
A Family Affair
This season, this team, was all about family. Catanzaro said the team's parents deserve a huge shout out for all their support, showing up with pizzas at the end of practice and turning out for every game. But the support the team received from the community at large was also tremendous.
The night before the championship, Catanzaro took the whole team out to The Lyme Tavern for a big pasta dinner at which team alumni spoke to offer words of wisdom and encouragement. At the end of the night, Catanzaro said he was surprised that there was no bill. The entire meal was on the house!
"These kids had more support than any East Lyme team has had in the last five years," said Catanzaro. "We had so many fans [and the players] got emotionally charged from their fan base."
"It might sound a little corny but football is the only game where you can win on emotion," said Catanzaro. "These kids played with an emotional intensity all season long that was second to none. They had the will to win. They didn’t know what the word losing meant and that’s what they strived for, every day, five days a week from August 1 to this past Sunday, November 11."
The final game was so intense, Catanzaro said, it felt as if the team was playing in the NFL. "After the championship, the celebration was crazy," he said. "All our fans rushed the field."
Standing in the parking lot after the final victory, after three and a half months of intense training, living and breathing football, Catanzaro said all the coaches looked at each other and said, "What do we do now?"
Catanzaro has coached football, basketball and lacrosse for years but this was his final year coaching Junior football. His son Chris, who played on the team, is moving up to high school next year. For Catanzaro, it feels right to end on such a high note.
"These kids were the best kids I’ve ever coached on any team in any sport on any level," said Catanzaro. "Our post game talk was think about what you learned today and this past year, and when life has you down, think about what you had to do to get to this moment."
For this team, Catanzaro said, victory came through hard work and a strong sense of family, by knowing they could depend on each other for support and from all the support they got from the community. And when you have all that, he said, "That is the moment you say, 'If I work hard, I can achieve anything.'"
About the Southern New England Youth Football Conference
There are 13 towns in the Southern New England Youth Football Conference, most of them local although it extends as far afield as Willimantic and Killingly. The league is divided into three different levels, two of which are non-competitive. The noncompetitive divisions are designed to give kids from ages 7 to 9 a chance to learn the game and the 10- and 11-year-olds play in the Micro A division.
The league gets into competitive championship play in the Junior Division, comprising mostly 7th and 8th graders with a few 6th graders in the mix, and a Senior Division, which are the bigger 8th graders—think kids that are born to be linebackers!