Even though they trailed 13-6 at halftime of Sunday’s American Youth Football Championship Super Bowl, the Johnston Youth Football Association’s undefeated 12U Panthers were fired up to bring the Blackstone Valley Division title home.
However, their arch-rival Providence 49ers – who seemingly couldn’t do anything wrong in the second half even if they tried – ended Johnston’s storybook season, 32-6, and captured the AYF Championship.
But, the Panthers’ lone loss in a dozen games didn’t in the least dent the spirits of a talented group of pre-teens, who immediately shouted: “We’ll be back bigger and stronger next year and make another run for the championship.”
Gary Salzillo, who doubles as the JYFA President and12U head coach, offered: “We had a great, great year. The kids played some super football, learned some valuable lessons about the game and we’re all confident this team will be better in 2018.”
Moreover, as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator Phil Morin emphasized: “Hey, when any team wins 11 of 12 games and advances to the championship round, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Our coaching staff is proud of this team and knows that we will come back better and more determined next season to take home the big prize.”
For a while Sunday, it looked as though Johnston would indeed become title town.
Michael Salzillo, who plays both offense and defense for the Panthers, got off to an impressive start Sunday when he recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff and gave Johnston excellent field position.
Just two plays later, Nicholas Baccala, who is also a talented two-way Panther, bolted some 40 yards for a 6-0 Johnston lead. The point after failed.
But, the 49ers bounced back immediately, scoring on their next offensive possession and as Morin mused: “they never surrendered.”
Still, Johnston was just a touchdown behind, 13-6, at intermission.
But, the second half belonged exclusively to the 49ers, who took advantage of some costly Panthers’ turnovers and outscored Johnston, 20-0, to capture the prestigious Super Bowl crown.
“We made some uncharacteristic errors, especially in the second half,” Morin told reporters. “Hey, it happens in big games at all levels; the NFL Super Bowl, College Championship…no team is ever free of errors in big, big games.”
Salzillo, meanwhile, added: “I’m personally proud of each and every player on our roster. Never once did they stop trying…unfortunately, today was the 49ers’ day, not ours.”
Yet, Johnston’s offense, which was led by quarterback Dante Iafrate and the combo of Baccala and Brandon Parsons, along with the line that’s anchored by Alex Morin, guards Michael Laflamme and Gian Tortolani, tackles Michael Franco and Nick Kelly and tight end Camani Batista, kept plugging away trying to reverse their fortunes.
Likewise, Johnston’s wide receivers, Michael Salzillo and Hudson Carvalho, gave it their all to move the football, but were unable to crack the pressure applied by the 49ers’ defense that enabled Providence to score twice in the final three minutes.
Despite the loss, the Panthers’ defense, which was led by ends Nick Keller, Eli Williams and Rafael Ayriyan, tackles Morin, Mason Mangiante, Vinny Campanella and Roberto Martinez, along with linebackers Laflamme, Parsons, Baccala and Carvalho, turned in a solid effort.
The same held true for corners Salzillo, Joe Forte, Aiden Lariviere and Israel Hiraldo, as well as safeties Dylan Martins, Kyle D’Allensandro and Iafrate, who received praise from all the Panthers’ coaches for playing their hearts out until the final whistle.