It all came down to fourth and goal on a Las Vegas Sunday.
Down 32-36 with 10 seconds left in the National Youth Football Championship, the Juneau Raiders were stymied at the Camarillo Cougars’ 3-yard line with one last play to win the game.
Offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos called his final timeout. He had a dilemma: dial-up another direct snap for running back Gaby Soto — a play they ran seven times that day — or opt for something less obvious, a fake handoff with a pass option they called Pirate.
Sjoroos called the kids to the sideline. Opting for the element of surprise, he wanted to run Pirate. His players would have none of it.
“The whole team got together and said, “No, we’ve been running this play the whole time and that’s what got us most of our touchdowns,” so we overruled the coach,” center Jake Ferster said. “We trusted our team to make the blocks and we trusted Gabby to read the hole and make it through.”
Sjoroos had reservations about the call, but trusted his players.
“The kids were really adamant: they said ‘No, let’s not do that one,’ so they called the play,” Sjoroos said. “It’s very obvious in that formation who was getting the ball, it’s a direct snap to Soto, and the only time we’d been doing that, he was running around the end. … But I’ve learned over the years to put trust in the kids. For as hard as they played in that game and all the others, they deserved to have input on that final play.”
With his coach’s reluctant blessing, Ferster snapped the ball.
“The moment I did this, Gabby (Soto) came ripping to the sideline and got us the touchdown,” Ferster said.
“They blocked like crazy, everybody did their job, kids just mashing down. Soto cuts back up the middle and trucks a kid at the goal line and scores,” Sjoroos said.
Soto’s score gave the Raiders a 38-36 advantage. NYFC rules award two points for extra point kicks. Kicker Wallace Adams, a perfect 5-5 on the day, put the Raiders up 40-36 with just a desperation play left for the Cougars.
Soto made the final tackle after the Cougars ripped off a 22-yard run at the end of the game. The Juneau Raiders had won a National Championship in the 13 Central Division.
Ferster said he doesn’t think he’ll ever play in a game like that again.
“It was just pure joy,” he said. “I was almost in tears, so happy for my teammates. I thought we were going to get a few wins in, but I didn’t think we’d win the whole thing.”
Sunday marks the second time a Juneau Youth Football League team has won the yearly Las Vegas tournament, a 100-team affair that classes squads by average age and weight.
With a 38-point fourth quarter capping a back-and-forth game, Sjoroos, a veteran youth coach who coached JYFL’s 1999 National Championship team, said it was an “instant classic” of a game, “one that you can play over and over again.”
The Raiders fell behind early in the game, ceding a 16-0 lead before Soto scored a rushing touchdown from 11 yards out to narrow the gap 16-8.
Camarillo received the second half kickoff and extended their lead to 22-8 early in the third quarter. That’s when Juneau turned it around. Soto answered with a rushing score of his own, cutting the game to 22-16.
The Raiders defense then got their first sack, stalling Camarillo’s drive and forcing them to their first punt.
“We got the ball back about midfield, moved down to around their 20, third quarter is over, we’re down 22-16 but we have momentum, we’re moving,” Sjoroos said.
The Raiders punched another one in to take the 22-24 lead early in the third. Defensive lineman Cody Morehouse then stripped Camarillo’s quarterback for a turnover; Raiders possession at their own ‘30. Two plays later, Soto ripped a 60-yard run for a 22-32 lead.
“We’re thinking, we have some momentum, we have the lead, we get one more stop and we can really put the nail in this thing,” Sjoroos said. “To their credit, they have a running back of their own, I don’t remember his name but he was #22, I’ll remember that forever, he took off and hit a 60-yard run with about three-and-a-half minutes to go in the game.”
After Camarillo missed another kick, Juneau clung to just a 28-32 lead. With just minutes left, the Raiders recovered an onside kick and held the ball at midfield with the opportunity to bleed the clock and ice the game.
But it wouldn’t be that easy.
“Kids are kids, we had a couple of miscues and we went backwards. It was probably the worst thing we could do at that time,” Sjoroos said.
After a 46-yard punt, the Raiders had the Cougars pinned back in their own territory with a little over two minutes left. Camarillo’s unnamed #22 then broke off another long score, this time a 75-yard touchdown that would give the Cougars a 36-32 lead.
On the Raiders ensuing possession, Soto ripped off another long rush along the sideline. Sjoroos thought he scored, but the refs ruled him out at the 9-yard line with 37 seconds left.
“I am running down the sideline like ‘Woo hoo, we won,’” Sjoroos said.
A couple stymied plays and a defensive penalty brought the Raiders to their fourth and goal.
“Fourth quarter, 45 seconds left, timeout, our star running back puking on the field. That was a crazy game,” running back and linebacker Cooper Kriegmont said. “We were all jumping, lots of people crying. Our biggest, 245-pound player just sobbing,”
To get to the championship the Raiders (7-0 in JYFL play) beat Nevada’s Anthem Cougars (8-2) 39-13 in the semifinals of the tournament Thanksgiving night. Previous to the National Championships, the Raiders played in the Southwest Bowl in Seattle to a 1-1 record (a 27-0 loss to Parkland Raiders and a 37-6 win over the Lakewood Lumberjacks).
Their championship opponents, the Camarillo Cougars (11-0), were the champions of their 30-team league. The California team had played in the tournament eight years in a row.