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Orland Park Pioneers
poised for successful season

Football teams, cheerleading squads hard at work

By Ed Muniz

With summer coming to a close, the signs of fall are slowly appearing: children go back to school; and  pigskins are once again flying through the air.

The south suburb of Orland Park features an organization that heads into its 38th-consecutive year of service to its community. The Orland Park Pioneers youth football and cheer teams have given the boys and girls of Orland Park and its surrounding communities an opportunity to participate and have fun in programs that are second to none.

Pioneer President John Stefanos leads an impressive 17-member board. The numbers of the all-volunteer board speak to the commitment each individual puts forth to make the Pioneers an elite youth organization.

Originally the Pioneers began as a small football program. They played teams from outlying communities and like all start-ups, games were sometimes difficult to muster.

As more and more city dwellers left for the suburbs, the southwest suburbs grew. With that growth came more opportunities. Towns and organizations were able to form the Southwest Midget Football League (SWMFL)  which Orland Park joined 12 years after the league’s inception.

Currently the SWMFL consists of 15 different communities that participate in two divisions. Programs that can field a minimum of seven teams play in the Red Division. The others compete in the White Division.

Among the SWMFL Red participants are Mokena, Dolton, Frankfort, Tinley Park, Homer Glen, Oak Forest, Lansing, New Lenox and Orland Park.

This year the Pioneers have more than 400 boys and girls involved. On the football side, the Pioneers will field nine teams ranging from the entry-level Blue Widget team of 6-and-7-year-olds weighing under 80-pounds up to Varsity level of 13-14-year-olds who do not exceed 170 pounds.

The Pioneers feel they and the SWMFL give their players the best opportunity to learn and play football.

“What separates us and the SWMFL from a lot of the others programs and leagues is the number of age groups we have,” Stefanos said. “We are able to offer a better probability of playing against their own age and weight groups.

“Other programs might have a combined 9-and-10 year-old, 85-pound team where we have a team solely for 9-year-olds and a separate team also for 10-year-olds. Thus our kids are playing with more kids their own age and weight.”

Another unique feature of the league is how it approaches the under 10-year-old teams that comprise the Widget Division. In those games, the score is not kept and the emphasis is on teaching the game of football.

Other rules, like no kickoffs or punts, no extra points, limited offensive formations or no blitzing on defense, allow coaches to focus on teaching the fundamentals of tackling, blocking, running and passing.

“We feel this is how we get our kids to really understand the game, and it works great moving forward,” Stefanos said. “We think it is very well received for the most part by our parents. At the end of the season they get a chance to play in a Widget Bowl over two weekends. It’s a small form of playoffs where they do keep score and crown a champion in preparation for the next level. It’s a lot of fun for the kids.”

The Pee Wee level and above follow the regular structure of football games with some small changes, including the length of games.

The SWMFL also has a Blue Division based on what the league can support. This is for older kids who benefit from a little more instruction.

Those who want to play football or cheer for the Pioneers are welcome no matter what community they’re from. Sometimes the team fees present a problem. However, if a child wants to participate but family funds are tight, the Pioneers cover the cost.

Stefanos mentioned that the Pioneers help out 10-to-12 each season.

The president of the organization said that volunteers provide the base for the program’s success.

“We cannot exist without the volunteers,” Stefanos said. “We’re proud of the volunteers we get. It takes a community to run an organization. We need parents to holds the chains, we need parents to announce, parents to coach, parents to clean up, parents for security; it is a community effort, and it’s all volunteers.”

The cheer side of the organization may not get as much focus during games but if you ever glance at the sidelines, you’ll see a group of girls who work hard.

For Kim Dombrowski, the Pioneers new Cheer Athletic Director, getting all 162 girls organized and ready for game time can be quite a task. Luckily, she has moms and other volunteers who have stepped up and given their time to represent the organization at a top level.

The numbers are up, so the Pioneers will field seven squads this year. The cheerleaders have been in existence as long as the football side and also put in long hours of practice.

In the beginning of the season, the squads vigorously work on their game and halftime performances. At the Pioneers’ Homecoming extravaganza, all 162 cheerleaders will perform together at one time.

“Our first priority is our Homecoming performance for mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, to show them how cool we look,” said Dombrowski.

With the conclusion of Homecoming, the focus will turn to preparing for their end-of-the-year competition, which has been quite rewarding for the Pioneer squads.

Last year, the Pioneers sent six squads to the league competition and came away with five first-place finishes and a sole second place, which some thought was the results of a technical problem with their music during the performance.

Dombrowski feels fortunate to have great coaches.

“I have awesome coaches,” she said. “All of our coaches are volunteers, but all the head coaches are moms. There are junior coaches who are all Sandburg (High School) cheerleaders and Pioneer alumnae. We have about 50 coaches who do an incredible job in getting our girls ready.”

The cheer squads begin at first and second grade and go up to the varsity level squad of seventh- and eighth-grade veterans.

Dombrowski mentioned that in the past the football and cheer portions appeared to be two separate entities. Coming in, she wanted to change some things; one was to have cheerleaders at every game.

“They are here to cheer for the football players so that’s what we are going to do,” she said. “Last year we didn’t have any cheerleaders at the championship game, but that was a schedule issue; the competition was the same day. But our girls will be there cheering for our boys as an organization, and we will be there at any championship game. This year that’s a big change.”

In the league by-laws, the cheer squads do not have to cheer at a game if their competition falls on the same weekend. Last year the Pioneers chose not to attend. This year with Dombrowski at the helm, the cheerleaders committed to supporting the teams. Fortunately, the cheer competition is earlier in the season this fall.

The event will take place Nov. 2 at the Hammond (Ind.) Civic Center. Two varsity cheerleaders planning on being there are Taylor Villa and Hailey Barnett. The cheer veterans are both in their final year, and each had something to add about what they most enjoy.

“I like that cheering creates another family for me,” said Villa. “The cheers and flying through the air are  fun, but there is a lot more to it. There is some drama at times, but it’s still great most of the time.”

Barnett feels being the muscle of the squad is where it’s at. 

“I’m sorry, but these are guns,” said Barnett as she showed off her biceps. “We took first place last year, and we are going for three-peat. We only get to compete in one competition each year. Other squads rub it in our face but you can’t betray your family man!”

Dombrowski added that her goal is to create a better partnership with football and bring everybody together as an organization. She feels the first step is making sure her squads support the football teams from the sidelines at every game.

With both tackling on the field and tosses on the sidelines in full go mode, the Orland Park Pioneers have the parental support to make this 2014 edition one of the best ever. Leaders like John Stefanos and Kim Dombrowski will use their skills to keep the organization ranked as one of Illinois’ top youth organizations. 

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