LAKE BUENA VISTA — Dr. Phillips Pop Warner’s Unlimited team might not have won a national championship, but the Panthers did accomplish their goal for 2014.
“We set a goal at the end of last year, when we just lost a heart-breaker in the Mid-Florida Championship,” DP head coach Tim Mara said. “(The boys) came in ready to play this year with one goal in mind — and that was to get to Disney.”
The Panthers did indeed make it to Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports for the 58th Pop Warner Super Bowl last week and participated in two exciting, memorable contests.
DP opened play Dec. 7 with a 22-18 victory over Brick City (New Jersey) but fell to the Everett (Massachusetts) Crimson Tide in the Unlimited (ages 14-and-under, no weight restrictions) national semifinals, 24-22, Dec. 10.
Trailing Everett 24-8 at halftime, for a minute things seemed like the Panthers had things right where they wanted them, poised to score another come-from-behind win. DP (15-1) shut out the powerhouse program from Massachusetts and got within two points — fueled by a pair of touchdown runs by Caleb McMillan and two interceptions by Parker Mara — before simply running out of time.
“All season, just like our last game, this team has no quit,” Mara said moments after the crushing defeat. “They knew they were down, but they knew they would come back — and they did. I would say 10% (of the success in the second half) was the adjustments we (coaches) made, and the rest of it was these kids figuring out a way to stop (Everett) out there on their own.”
The Crimson Tide went on to coast in the National Championship on Saturday morning, beating up on the Reno (Nevada) Miners, 39-0. That the Everett team that DP nearly knocked off had such an easy time in the championship is a fact that might add a little to the sting of the Dec. 10 defeat — but is also reason for the Panthers to be proud.
“We came, really, a couple plays short of probably winning it,” Mara said. “We were right there with all of them. We’re as good as anybody out there; we just didn’t win on that day.”
The loss in the semifinals of the Pop Warner Super Bowl ties the furthest a team from DP’s Pop Warner program has ever advanced. In 2005, the Panthers’ Junior Pee Wees also fell in the semifinals of that year’s championships.
The Unlimited age division is the highest level of Pop Warner, with a few of the boys on DP’s roster qualifying while actually being freshmen at Dr. Phillips High School this fall. The team’s success should be welcome news to the coaching staff of the Junior Varsity and Varsity football programs at the school, as those talented players — who proved themselves among the best in the nation for their age group — will be suiting up at the high school level soon.
“They’re (the staff at DPHS) very excited,” Mara said. “The nice thing about Dr. Phillips (High School) is their staff is an integral part of the program of the Pop Warner. They’re excited with the group that’s coming in — they know there’s a lot of talent with this group.”
Rodney Wells, head coach for the varsity program at Dr. Phillips High School, agrees.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I was there Sunday, that was an awesome game — those guys showed some fight being down two scores in the third quarter. ... We feel great about it; we’re really close with the Pop Warner teams. It’s very important. It’s all about relationships.”