The Jets didn’t realize how far they had come on this journey until they saw the map of states represented at the Pop Warner Super Bowl, in Orlando.
Most of the states to the north were empty, except for the football in the upper left corner put there by 18 boys from Camas and Washougal, Washington.
“That was ours,” said Owen Givens. “At the beginning, I didn’t get what it meant to go to Florida. Now that we went there, it was crazy and it was awesome. I want to go back.”
Although these 10- and 11-year-olds lost both games to teams from North Carolina and New York, the experiences they gained and the memories they made will last a lifetime.
“It was the ultimate Cinderella story,” said coach Rob Givens. “These boys came out of nowhere. At first, it looked like they weren’t going to have enough to fill a team. But, they made the commitment and showed a tremendous amount of character.”
After struggling in the first game at nationals, the Jets threw caution to the wind and just played football.
“It was absolutely phenomenal to watch,” Givens said. “They didn’t pay attention to the scoreboard, they just fought aggressively until the end. They showed tears because the journey was finally over. They weren’t upset. It was tears of joy.”
Members of the East County Junior Pee Wee Jets are Sam Speer, Nikko Speer, Alex Nalepa, Taylor Ioane, Cooper Maxey, Owen Givens, Jake Davidson, Marcel Hampton, Justyn Robarge, Ryan Hodge, Jacob Phillips, Jaxson Rodgers, Jaxson Sharp, Mason Mathison, Riley Brown, Trenton Swanson, Kai Tiantawach and Jacob Hudson. Coaches are Steve Speer, Brent Maxey, Lou Nalepa, Robert Givens, Eric Davidson, Jack Lemieux, Will Swanson and Mat Ioane Jr.
There was so much turbulence at the beginning of the season that the Jets couldn’t set an ultimate destination. Making it to Disney World was just a dream.
“It was a surprise,” Ioane said. “Nobody thought we could make it there, but we managed to fight hard and make our dreams come true.”
Once the coaches realized they had a dependable fleet, they told the boys if they got to the regional tournament, they could play at Reser Stadium — the home of the Oregon State Beavers.
“That was the goal, but then they surpassed that goal,” said Brent Maxey. “The next goal was to go to Spokane. Let’s win and let’s bring it back home to Doc Harris. We kept having to push the goal further out because there was this drive and commitment. And they kept winning and winning and winning.”
On Nov. 20, the Jets defeated the Reno Miners 36-12 to become Pacific Northwest Pop Warner champions. Not only were they going to Disney World to celebrate, but to play football with the best Junior Pee Wee teams in the nation.
“It shows that if you put in all the hard work, you get to do things like this,” said Cooper Maxey.
Coach Speer used a little math to summarize the journey of these 18 Jets. When he counts all the league, regional and national playoff games, it adds up to seven.
“It’s literally an extra season,” he said. “We got an entire extra season’s worth of experience against the best in the country.”
The next goal for the coaches and parents are to keep these kids together for as long as possible.
“We can do it again. We have broken through that glass ceiling,” Speer said. “Hopefully, this will bring more kids from Camas and Washougal out to play football for East County Pop Warner. There is more talent in this area, and if we can access that and harness that, we will have a better shot when we get to nationals next year.”
It all started with this team of road builders. Every day, coach Givens reminded them what each brick meant.
“When the dream started happening, I said, ‘You are going to remember the names of these kids for the rest of your lives.’ Adversity makes brothers out of strangers. Don’t be fooled by the successes. They had a very adverse season, and it brought them together.
“This is the longest football season I can ever remember, and they still cried because they didn’t want it to end,” Givens added. “That’s the perfect ending to a Cinderella season.”