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Valley squad wins United State flag football competition

November 21, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN

Sports Writer

When Mike Driscoll took his 12- to 14-year-old boys flag football team to the NFL National Tournament of Champions last year, his hopes were the team would win half its games and not to be embarrassed.

This year Driscoll had a more defined goal. After taking second place last year, his only goal was to win the tournament championship.

On Saturday the Imperial Valley Chargers — representing the Imperial County Sheriff's Activities League — achieved that goal, winning the national title at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla.

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"This time around we went in with the idea of winning the whole thing. I was afraid that anything less than first place would be a disappointment," said Driscoll, the team's head coach. "We hand-picked this team and brought in five new players. And with the players we had, we had a lot of confidence going into the tournament."

With only three players returning from last year's team — Randy Andrews, Dustin Driscoll and Jack Fleming, all of El Centro — Mike Driscoll scouted the Imperial Valley looking for the best athletes around. He added Brian Jones and Ruben Salazar both of El Centro, Brawley's, Travis LeBaron and Zay Shepherd and Adam Warner of Imperial.

The additions turned out to pay huge dividends as each player made significant contributions in the championship run.

"Everybody on this team contributed equally. Everyone just seemed to click," said Andrews. "I really was surprised that everyone clicked as well as they did. In our first couple of practices everyone just stuck with the people that they knew, but after awhile we started coming together."

The Valley squad took first place in the regional qualifying tournament in Hacienda Heights on Nov. 3, going 5-1.

With momentum coming off their Hacienda Heights performance, the Valley Chargers kicked off the national tournament with an 7-6 opening loss to Jacksonville.

Instead of sulking, Driscoll said the loss served as motivation for the team members.

"I think that loss was kind of a wake-up call for us. I think we went in a little cocky because of how we did last year. And we knew that if we lost again, then that would probably be it for us," said Driscoll.

The Valley team proceeded to dominate its competition in round-robin play, outscoring its opponents 156-20 over the next six games. The Valley team pinned four shutouts, winning by a combined 103-0, including three wins that were called because of a 28-point mercy rule.

In the championship game the Chargers edged the Runnemede Eagles of Maryland 21-15 in overtime.

Fleming finished the game with two touchdowns, including the game-winner in OT. Shepherd added a touchdown, Andrews recorded a two-point conversion and LeBaron added an extra point. For the tournament Warner finished with five sacks and three touchdowns and Shepherd picked off 10 passes.

Aside from playing a little flag football, the players say the experience allowed them to meet new and different people

"First, we were teammates with people that we're playing (high school football) games against. Normally they'd be like our enemies, but through this they were our teammates and now our friends," said Shepherd. "You go from practicing with these guys on your team, who you really didn't know then during the games, you're looking for them on the field."

While the boys were playing in the championship game, they had the privilege of having their own cheering section in the form of the Valley's 12-14-year-old girls team.

Like the boys team, the girls went to the tournament to win. Last year the Valley girls took home the national title. This year they weren't as successful as they finished in fourth place going 3-3 in the tournament.

"There really was a lot of disappointment because we were hoping to win and defend our championship," said Denise Morita of El Centro, a returner from last year's championship squad. "I definitely think we had the team to win it all, but we just weren't playing together. For the girls who won't be playing next year, we wanted to go out on top, but it's just sad that we don't get to."

Said Marixol Sigmond Garcia, also of El Centro: "I think for us who are going to play again, we're already looking ahead to next year. We're already looking for other girls to play so we can be more prepared for it. At least we'll get another chance at it and hopefully we can get into the championship."

Back on the boys side, the Valley team will represent the United States in international competition. The place and date have yet to be determined, but no matter where the team ends up playing, the National Football League will take care of the bill.

Added Driscoll: "There was one statistic that really stood out to me more than anything. I was told that there are over 1.5 million kids playing flag football in the entire United States. And of those 1.5 million, it's eight kids from the Imperial Valley representing the whole nation."

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