While it may not have been the ultimate fairytale ending down in Disney World for the Santa Clara Lions, Head Coach Craig Connelly and his players certainly enjoyed the ride at the 2016 Pop Warner Super Bowl in Orlando, Florida
After an undefeated Peninsula Pop Warner season, the Santa Clara Lions varsity Pop Warner squad returned to Florida to compete in the 60th annual Pop Warner Super Bowl. In an eight-team division, the Lions tackled their first two opponents, earning themselves a spot in the championship game.
While the final game didn’t go as planned, the Lions managed to beat both the Wailoa Razorbacks out of Hawaii and the Dorchester Eagles out of New England.
“It was an incredibly great experience for all of my kids and my staff” commented coach Connelly as his kids turned in their equipment at Townsend Field. “The thing that was really amazing was that all of the Peninsula teams, all the teams from our region, went to the game, with their coaches. Our kids just had a great time, we had a bigger fanbase than anybody just to see that little team that nobody thought was going to go anywhere go knock on Super Bowl 60.”
Lions running back and safety Aaron Ah Sing had extra jump for the first game playing against his home state. Ah Sing grew up in Hawaii and moved to Santa Clara a few years ago. He got to be introduced to the Hawaii coach and they talked in their native language. Ah Sing, who wants to play college back on the island, certainly had extra fun that first game.
“It was weird [but] still really fun” commented Ah Sing. “I knew some players on the other team.”
Ah Sing and his teammates enjoyed their experience in Florida, but they didn’t have an easy task playing that much football in such a short time period.
“That’s a lot of football to play in six or seven days” remarked coach Connelly. “You gotta get kids used to the time change and food. These kids would live on McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, no I needed something to keep these kids regular, keep them alive.”
Coach Connelly knew he had to be tough on his kids for the team to reach new heights. Their Super Bowl championship opponent, (the Northwest Raiders out of Philadelphia), were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl victories the previous two years.
“Their speed, their size, I thought they would be fundamentally stronger, but it was just pure athleticism” recalled Connelly on the Raiders. “They were monsters.”
With the first and third games were blowouts, it was the second game that turned out to be the most exciting. Santa Clara would beat the Dorchester Eagles 48-44 in a game that executives at Disney World had never seen before. The two teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense in a thrilling contest, one that Coach Connelly noted actually came down to the kicking game.
“My placekicker [Isaiah Flores] made every one of his extra points, which is two points in Pop Warner ball. [The Eagles] could score, but they couldn’t outscore us. They put up an extra touchdown, but we made all six extra points, which is twelve points, two touchdowns.”
The Lions won just one game at last year’s Super Bowl, so this time around the players got a huge kick out of getting coach Connelly to his first Super Bowl championship game.
Asked what he will remember five years from now about the experience, running back and linebacker Joey Sanchez needed just a few words to put it eloquently: “Being the first Santa Clara Lions team to take Coach Craig to the Super Bowl.”
According to coach Connelly, only a handful of his players will either age out or grow out of his program before next season. During our conversation Connelly referred to this year’s team as a relatively young squad. With the experience gained this season, maybe the Lions can return to the Super Bowl again in 2017. If that ends up the case, perhaps a third time will be the charm for this Santa Clara fairytale.