By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — Winning a regional championship and appearing at a national tournament are supposed to be difficult accomplishments to achieve.
However, the Pope John Jr Lions 11U football team is making it look easy.
For the second straight season, the Jr Lions have captured a regional championship and will be playing at a national tournament after winning the American Youth Football Big East Regional championship and earning a spot at the American Youth Football National Championships. The Jr Lions will look to become the first New Jersey 11U team to win the AYF National Championships, which will take place from Dec. 2-7 at Austin-Tindall Park in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Jr Lions, who won the Pro Football Hall of Fame National Youth Championship Mid-Atlantic/New England Regional Championship and reached the semifinals of the Pro Football Hall of Fame National Youth Championship 10U Division last year in their first season as a squad, won the AYF Big East Regional title by notching victories over the Dorchester Vikings, of Cambridge, Md., and the New Rochelle Huguenots, of New Rochelle, N.Y. in the tournament.
The Jr Lions earned a 26-0 victory over the Vikings, who was Maryland’s state champion, in the semifinals on Nov. 11. A week later, the Jr Lions claimed the regional crown by beating the Huguenots, 20-6, in the title game at Mahopac High School in Mahopac, N.Y.
The 21 members of the team still couldn’t believe they won the regional championship and made a national tournament for a second straight year.
“It’s really good,” said Joey Rozynski, a sixth grade student at Pope John XXIII Middle School who plays running back and linebacker for the team and was named Most Valuable Player for the AYF Big East Regional Championship game. “Not a lot of kids our age have done what we have done as far as winning a regional championship two years in a row and getting a chance to play for a national title again. It’s pretty cool.”
“It’s amazing to do this again,” said Jarrod Cofrancesco Jr., a sixth grade student who is an offensive and defensive lineman for the Jr Lions. “It’s just really exciting for us.”
“This was a great experience for our kids,” Jr Lions head coach Jarrod Cofrancesco Sr. said. “The boys have worked and prepared hard all season. Seeing them come together again to form this caliber of a team is so nice and rewarding.”
Coming into the regional tournament, the Jr Lions (9-1) felt they could do well again this year after the experience they gained from last year’s run to Canton, Ohio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame National Youth Championship and having a great regular season this season.
The Jr Lions went 7-1 and won the Greater New Jersey American Youth Football Gold Division championship in their first year playing in the conference. The Jr Lions won their last six games in a row, including a 22-14 win over Ridge in the conference championship game to avenge their lone loss this season.
When the AYF Big East Regional began, the Jr Lions had to face a Dorchester team that was not only a state champion, but was undefeated as well. However, the Jr Lions took down the Vikings in the semis by pitching their fourth shutout of the season.
Then in the championship game, the Jr Lions had to go up against a New Rochelle squad that had not lost a game in two seasons. Despite the Huguenots’ winning streak and reputation coming into the contest, the Jr Lions put a stop to their winning ways by claiming the title in a game they led from start to finish.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to win because the other two teams were undefeated and we had our one loss,” said Tyler Houser, a sixth grade student who plays quarterback and linebacker. “But, that didn’t affect us at all. We just played our game and came out with the win.”
“These teams were not used to losing,” said Luke Brown, a sixth grade student who plays running back and linebacker. “We came down, executed and we won.”
Since winning the region, the Jr Lions have been practicing in order to prepare for a second crack at bringing a national championship to Pope John. After all, they want to get to the AYF national title game and win a national championship after they lost a tough 7-0 game to the NCYA Seminoles in last year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame National Youth Championship semifinals.
“We’ve been working hard all year for this chance again,” said Wesley Johnston, a sixth grade student who plays wide receiver and safety. “Not a lot of kids get this opportunity and this is our second shot at it. If we do our best, we will win.”
Regardless of how they will perform during the national event, they are already proud to have made history for the Jr Lions once again, considering they have only been together for two years.
“This is really cool because a lot of us are from different towns and we have been doing so much together,” Rozynski said. “These experiences have made us a better team and if we keep working together, we will do great things in the future.”
“Our boys have been winning all season against teams that were much bigger and faster,” Jr Lions Program Chief Administrator Shelley Zambardi said. “It’s because our Jr Lions are playing 'team first' football. They are disciplined, focused and giving their all for each other. Our Jr Lions football acumen is also irrefutably and extremely high by youth program standards. I credit our seasoned coaching staff, our school-based structure and our emphasis on Faith, Family, Football, in that order. We pray together. We play together. Together is key."
“This school is so proud of this team and the Jr Lions program,” Cofrancesco Sr., said. “We’re only two years old and we’re going to nationals for the second year in a row. We feel we have done a great job balancing their academics and athletics. More importantly, we’ve been able to watch them grow and become better students, better players and better young men.”