Doug Clark: Pint-size Bengals play hard for epic win
We’ve all seen this sports movie before.
It’s the one about the lovable nobodies, the underdogs from Palookaville who rise to glory despite all the odds.
It’s “Bad New Bears.”
It’s the story of the Spokane Valley Bengals, which is no Hollywood drama at all.
The Bengals are a real-deal team of 18 boys (ages 7-9) who play Pop Warner football in the Mitey-Mites division.
And what these lads accomplished deserves a loud and resounding cheer.
See, as sweet as all this sounds, these youngsters morph into their namesake beasts whenever they put on the helmets and pads and charge onto the field.
The homegrown Bengals became national champions last weekend by rolling over the higher-ranked Irondequoit Eagles of New York state, 28-6, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in sunny Orlando, Fla.
“This is the day that’s gonna go down in history!” exclaimed one of the exuberant Bengals.
Well, then, allow me to spread the word.
You don’t have to follow football or know an outside linebacker from a tight end to appreciate the dedication it took to achieve this level of excellence.
To get the scoop on what made these Bengals so special, I met with head coach Ryan Anstrom and two of his assistants, Matt Schneider and Todd Carlson.
As I expected, these coaches all have sons who play on the team.
Listening to these guys took me back to the summer when my now-grown son, Ben, was a kid and I agreed to coach his park league baseball team.
We never came close to achieving a Bengal level of domination.
As I recall, we never came close to winning more than half our games.
We did, however, have a lot of fun, which began on our first day of practice when I talked the players into naming their team the “Fighting Croutons.”
That just doesn’t say national championship, huh?
These pop coaches are significantly more serious-minded than I was.
I deduced this from Coach Anstrom’s steely eyes and when he told me that his young team had memorized his playbook of – get this – 60-plus plays.
I had trouble remembering my own phone number when I was 9.
The Bengals were picked for the Florida championships thanks to a scout from the Pop Warner organization who came to Spokane and watched them play.
They were one of an elite eight Mitey-Mite teams selected from across the nation. The teams were then paired off for four games, with the four winners each being given a national title.
Here’s how they got there. The Bengals finished their season in late October by going undefeated in eight regular games and one local bowl game.
The following statistic will give you an idea of just how dominating these kids were.
In those nine games, teams playing against the Bengals scored a total of 18 points.
The Bengals racked up (are you kidding me?) 280 points.
All the moms and dads did their part, too. They raised $29,000 to make this dream trip possible.
“The parents just came together,” said Schneider. “They became a team of their own.”
Talk about commitment. With the season over, the Bengals continued practicing. When it got too cold, they struck a deal with the Spokane Shock to use the professional Arena Football League team’s indoor facilities twice a week.
In the end, these kids were more than ready to face a tough bunch of New Yorkers.
“Winning’s not everything to me,” said Anstrom of the preflight advice he gave his team. “But don’t ever take yourself out of it. I told them, ‘I’m going down there to win.’ ”
Carlson gave me a DVD of the game to watch. Dressed up in their black jerseys and orange stockings, these are the cutest little guys I’ve ever seen.
I especially loved one moment when Coach Schneider bent down to tie a player’s shoe.
On the flipside, these kids really do know how to execute plays.
According to the coaches, however, the high final score doesn’t tell the tale.
The big game was actually a nail-biter. With just five minutes left, the Bengals found themselves holding onto a scant 7-6 edge.
But the defense continued to play stingy while the offense added an amazing 21 points to the score.
And the Spokane Valley Bengals became national champs.
“We were shocked,” said Schneider. “It was so awesome.”
No, coach. It was historic.
Doug Clarkcan be reached at (509) 459-5432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.