La PORTE — Even though the La Porte Junior Pee Wees have repeatedly been the smallest team on the field, they've found a way to persevere.
For the last three-plus years, this Slicers' Pop Warner Football squad has been the tiniest team on the field every single game, so coach Mike Nelson said they learned to play with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders.
"They were always going to be out-sized," he added. "They were always going to be slower. So they learned to dig deep and just play a little harder."
That persistence and determination has carried the Slicers to remarkable heights this season.
The La Porte Junior Pee Wee team captured the Pop Warner Mid-America D-2 Regional Championship on Nov. 17 at Kiwanis Field in La Porte. This is the first squad in the 40-year history of La Porte Pop Warner to qualify for the National Championships in Florida, which start on Saturday at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World. It's now one of only eight teams left in its division in the country to be competing for a national title. The Slicers' overall record is 11-1.
“It was huge,” Nelson said of winning the regional championships and advancing to the national championships. “It was nice to see all the hard work the boys put in pay off for them. They earned it. It was well earned.”
La Porte downed the Rockford Renegades (Ill.) 24-7 to secure the regional championship.
Nelson noted that Rockford, Illinois, has a population of roughly 150,000, compared to La Porte's about 20,000.
“So obviously, town size wise all things were not equal,” Nelson said while chuckling.
While knocking off a team that has a bevy of more kids to choose from, the Slicers accomplished an extraordinary feat.
They were the first team in the 40-year history of La Porte Pop Warner to make it to the National Championships. That certainly sets them apart from all the previous Junior Pee Wee Pop Warner teams from the town.
“They're pretty fantastic in that they pick each other up,” Nelson said. “They don't rely on just any one thing. They play defense really well. They run the ball really well. We can throw the ball. They're a talented group of kids, but more than that, they win with heart. They just want it more than their opponents every single time.”
La Porte's players began the season as either 10- or 11-year-olds.
All of the players on this team are from La Porte, except coach Nelson's son, Hunter Nelson, who's from Rolling Prairie, which doesn't offer a Pop Warner program.
Players on the squad are Gavin Ake, Julian Burnett, Keegan Dzomba, Timothy Jenkins, Bryce Jones, Timothy Knoll, Lucas Marshall, Jobe Meyer, Issac Moyer, Hunter Nelson, Nickolas Novak, Aiden Penziol, Gavin Phillips, Reed Raymond, Gavin Rees, Dawson Shreve, Jack Travis, and Xzavier Wilson. La Porte's coaches are Mike Nelson, John Penziol, Rickie Jones, Leland Travis, and Jordan Gosciniak.
Of the 19 players on La Porte's roster, 16 of them scored on the season.
“That's kind of unheard of in youth football, to have that many kids handle the ball,” Coach Nelson said. “Most teams just give it to their beast and let them do their thing. But we try and make everybody involved, give everybody a part, and everybody plays a role.”
In the national championships, the Slicers face the Deer Valley Bulldogs (Ariz.) at 10 a.m. CST Saturday. If they win that contest, they'll play again at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in a semifinal. The final is set for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13.
Coach Nelson recognized the importance of ball security, limiting mistakes and durable defense for his team to have success in the national championships.
“We can't turn the ball over,” he said. “We're going to have to play our style of football. We're going to have to execute. No penalties, no turnovers, good defense. And have a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, that's all we can ask for.”