The majority of the 14U Panthers football players have been playing together for years, going all the way back to their days as 70-pounders.
In some seasons, the team struggled. One year, they went 0-9 and didn’t score a touchdown.
But that was then. This is now.
The Panthers completed their years-long climb to the top of the Anne Arundel Youth Football Association on November 8 when they defeated the Peninsula Athletic League Hawks 12-0 in the AAYFA Central Division championship at Annapolis High School.
The team finished 10-2 overall with a sendoff championship in the final game of their youth careers.
“I’m extremely proud of the boys,” said Panthers head coach Duane Jackson, who guided the team to the ideal finish to their youth football careers before they head off to play high school football next fall. “With the years we had in the past, we’ve been beat up on quite a bit over the years, and they just stuck with it. It’s a great way to finish. It’s great for the kids, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The Panthers players are Brady Grunder, Jackson Wheeler, Kaleb Richardson, Ty Guamera, Collin Lewis, Patrick Connolly, Xander Dodd, Aaron Rhodes, Jacob Berry, Talan Behler, Grant Dempsey, Jake Blanch, Nathan Kreuger, Richard Smith, Dakota Owens, Tyler Jackson, Jonas Hendrickson, Andrew Lloyd, Ty Schwarts, Chase Bivens and Caiden Zacharski. The team went 7-2 in the regular season to enter the playoffs as one of two No. 1 seeds in the eight-team playoff bracket.
The Panthers defeated Cape 18-6 in the first round of the playoffs before defeating Severn 20-0 in the semifinals and PAL 12-0 in the final; in three playoff games, the Panthers posted two shutouts and allowed only one score.
“The defense played lights-out, and that’s really what we had all year,” said Jackson, who noted the standout play of middle linebackers Guamera and Berry, which allowed the team to shut down the middle of the field and focus on sealing the outside. “Our defense always kept us in position to win the game.”
In the championship game, the Panthers took a first-half lead on a touchdown run by Lewis. Leading 6-0, the Panthers put the game away in signature style, running their increasingly famous hook-and-ladder play. Rhodes, the quarterback, hit Blanch on the sideline with a pass, and Blanch lateraled to Connolly, who blazed 40 yards downfield for a touchdown and a 12-0 lead.
The Panthers ran the hook-and-ladder four times this season and hit on the play three of those times, twice scoring touchdowns and another time gaining 40 yards to set up a touchdown.
Word was already out and opponents knew the play was in the Panthers’ arsenal, but assistant coach Zach Tolle dialed up the play at the perfect moment.
“The opposing team coaches knew it was coming, but it was a matter of when,” said Jackson.
Guamera iced the game with a late interception, running it back 40 yards to give the Panthers possession and allowing them to run out the clock.
Tolle said the team is well prepared for the next level.
“I think the most notable thing was getting these kids ready for high school,” said Tolle, who was one of three assistant coaches along with Anthony Casalino and Rick Smith. “They got better with the concepts every single week. The kids never cared about who got the ball the most or who scored. They were worried about winning.”
Jackson said the Panthers had the right mentality all season in two main areas: play as a team and have fun doing it.
“Them gelling as a team and playing as one really defined the team this year,” said Jackson. “In years past we’ve had a few instances where they would argue. None of that happened this year. They played as one team, and that’s what it takes. …Really the focus was to have fun. The game is supposed to be fun. Go out and have fun and trust each other to do your job. That’s really the emphasis we had. This is such a great group of kids who have played the game for so long.”