Youth football programs train tomorrow's gridiron greats


Are you ready for some football? More than 500 Ponte Vedra youngsters between the ages of 5 and 18 believe they are. They’ve all been working hard in Florida’s sweltering heat for several weeks in preparation for the start of the 2016 football season. This football preview will start with the youngest group of budding stars who play PVAA youth football.

Youth football—The Ponte Vedra Athletic Association (PVAA)

Players in Ponte Vedra can choose between two offerings – a recreational program (JDL football) and a travel football program (Pop Warner football). Each of these programs stresses safety and adheres to the USA Football’s HeadsUp Football initiative.

HeadsUp Football, focuses on safe tackling and blocking techniques as well as concussion and hydration awareness and Sudden Cardiac Arrest awareness. According to Eric Henkel, the man in charge of PV Football, it is the foundation of the PVAA’s commitment to a safe youth football experience.

Junior Development League Football

The PVAA’s Junior Development League Football program – JDL football, as it is known – was founded in 1998 by the author and consisted of just 26 7- and 8-year-olds. Over the years, the JDL program has expanded to include programs in the Julington Creek and St.Augustine communities.

Under Commissioner Barry Taylor – who honed his football skills at the Citadel – The Ponte Vedra JDL program has 225 players participating in eight different age divisions, from 5 to 14 years. An in-house recreational program, safety, fun, skill development and balanced completion are essential priorities. Every JDL player is taught the fundamentals of each football position. Practices are limited to 90 minutes, twice a week. JDL divisions play a 10-game season, with all JDL games on the program’s home field at Davis Park on Saturday. The mascot for all JDL divisions is the Shark.

A highlight of this program is the JDL Combine — patterned after the NFL Combine — in which players from all divisions have the opportunity to compete against each other in contests such as the vertical jump, the shuttle drill, the 40-yard run and the stacked bag high jump. This event run by former Jaguar Donovin Darius and assisted by other former Jaguar players and league coaches is typically scheduled prior to the season’s first game.

Pop Warner Football

The Ponte Vedra Athletic Association’s Pop Warner Football program has been a choice for area youngsters since 1995, the same year the Jacksonville Jaguars were born. Today, more than 75 players compete for position and playing time in one of the three Pop Warner age/weight categories – Mitey Mites, Junior Pee Wees and Pee Wees. Ponte Vedra teams, whose mascot is also the Shark, play home or away games against other First Coast communities. With the exception of Mitey Mites, Pop Warner teams participate in post-season playoffs for national recognition.

In the 2015 season, the Ponte Vedra Junior Pee Wees reached the Final Four of the Pop Warner National Playoffs. On the way to a top four National finish, the Junior Pee Wees racked up conference, district and regional championships. The team finished its season with a 14-1 record.

The PV Pee Wee team finished the regular season undefeated and went on to win the conference and district championships. The team progressed to the top 32 teams in the Pop Warner national playoffs, finishing the season with an 11-1 record.

Leon Fowler is the head of the PV Pop Warner football program.

Middle school football

While organized football is not a funded sport in St Johns County middle schools, several communities, including Ponte Vedra, have organized an after-school football program associated with their community school. Landrum Middle School and Valley Ridge Academy are two area schools that play in the recently formed St Johns Middle School Athletic Association. The association includes teams from Fruit Cove, Liberty Pines, Pacetti Bay, Murray, Creekside and Switzerland Point to name a few.

The Landrum Middle School Lions, under former Jaguar offensive lineman Todd Fordham, should have more than 25 seventh and eighth grade youngsters playing football in the SJMSAA league. Many of coach Fordham’s players are graduates of either the PV JDL or the PV Pop Warner groups. Players such as WR Joe Taraboletti, QB Caden Fordham, LB Max Moquin, C John Mazzarella, LB Will Greer and RB Campbell Parker all developed their skills and techniques during their years in the PV youth program. The talented Lions are expected to contend for SJMSAA honors.

The Valley Ridge Academy Hawks, under head coach Rafeal Dominguez, expect to field both junior varsity and varsity squads from the 50-plus players who turned out for spring practice. Coach Dominguez looks for big things from several key-returning players, including former Ponte Vedra JDL star TE/ FB Gavin Inman, DE Malik Aldridge and OL/DL Lorenzo Martinez. Newcomers RB Oliver Wood, WR/LB Jack Isaacs and RB Randall Toomk should help the Hawks improve on their 4-5 record of last season.