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Black Pioneers ballcarrier Lukas Dill heads left to try to elude Red defender Erin Keene (foreground) in the Homecoming debut of flag football/

Flag football makes
entertaining Homecoming debut

Text and photos by Ed Muniz

ORLAND PARK -- Ah, football is upon us and it captures the emotions of so many of us every weekend this time of year.

It happens around the country, whether it's: seven-man football played in many isolated areas of the country where towns and communities have limited populations; touch football with friends during recess at school or in youth and adult leagues; Friday Night lights at the thousands of prep stadiums throughout the country; campuses at junior colleges and four-year schools; professional stadiums packed to the rim with rabid fans; and of course, the vast youth flag and tackle organizations that you find in every nook and cranny of our nation.

Each is engulfed in a tradition that started back at the inception of the sport back on November 6, 1869, when Rutgers University played Princeton University.

Along with the sport itself, other traditions within the game-day experience took hold and are now recognized as part of a football weekend. They include: rivalries; cheerleaders, who initially were fans leading attendees sitting near them in loud repetitive supportive chants; and tailgating prior to the games.

They added to the anticipation of football weekends. And when the game ended, you were elated with your team's win or somber after their loss.

1911 saw another tradition take hold in the sport when an athletic director at the University of Missouri invited alumni to “come home” for the game against their alma mater's chief rival at the time, Kansas. Thus began the annual tradition of “Homecoming” and all its festivities. Now associated with football games at high schools and colleges, it too has become a fixture at youth football games.

For the Orland Park Pioneers Youth Football organization, Homecoming is a big deal and a huge part of their season. The event is looked forward to yearly and planned well ahead. Parents and others arrive as early as 4 a.m. to set up tents and secure a good spot for the daylong event. 

Lined up at each end of John Humphrey Field by 9 a.m., grills are going, cheerleaders don their special uniforms for the day, players in partial pads arrive and an array of colorful tents cover much of the endzone grounds. This isn’t just folks there for an 1 1/2-hour game; this is about celebrating all day with every Pioneers team and cheerleading squad that takes the field, celebrating with parents and their sons and daughters.

It’s about supporting a youth program and really is worth being there the entire day. For some diehards it spans from 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

It’s really quite impressive from the perspective of an outsider looking in. The parent participation is what catches the eye from the get-go. The event is like a well-oiled machine that runs and runs. And if something happens to breakdown, there are mechanics (parents and volunteers) galore to quickly get things back on track. With parental and volunteer support that has everything covered, the Pioneers make it easy for fans of both teams to enjoy the day not just on the field but also in the stands and on the grounds.

Running back Brady Dahl waits for the handoff from quarterback Connor Nellis, but Nellis decides to air it out instead during the Red team's 18-18 tie against the Black team.

The carnival atmosphere includes a face-painting area, free popcorn, a jump pit area, concessions and a variety of delicious treats from endzone to endzone. It truly is an event.

Homecoming 2016 included a new twist -- two flag football games opened the day at 9 and 10 a.m. The first tackle game began at at 2 p.m. 

The Pioneers flag football instructional teams were eager to show their skills to the parents, family and friends in attendance.

Flag games are played on a 50-yard field where teams switch if they can’t sustain a drive via first downs. A tackle is made by grabbing one of a ballcarrier's flags, which hang at each player's sides. They players aren’t in pads but use a football helmet and mouthpiece. Each 10-minute quarter utilizes a running clock that only stops for injuries and timeouts.

Facing off to kickstart the six-game homecoming schedule were the Black, and Red Pioneers. The flag teams consist of boys from 5-to-8 years of age.

The Red Pioneers were first on offense, and it didn’t take long for quarterback Vincent Annel to jumpstart the offense when he took off around right end and gained 15 yards before running out of bounds.

Next up was Caden Votteler who looked a little hesitant on which way to go. Votteler gained experience with two snaps. When Caden Keith's number was called next, he took his snap and quickly got outside to the right sideline and didn’t stop until he had scored a touchdown 26 yards later.

Now on offense and facing a 6-0 deficit, the Black Pioneers looked to even the score. Angelo Berardi had the first crack at it and tried going down the left side but was stopped just a yard later by Red Pioneer Hayden Weston. When Nolan Rodriguez tried the left sideline, he was met by Red Pioneer Tyler Whittingham after just a yard.

On two following plays, the Black Pioneers just couldn’t avoid Red’s Weston and were forced to turn over the ball.

Back on offense, the Red Pioneers tried to surprise the Blacks with a pass play. Fortunately for the defenders, the Red team's pass by Annel fell short.

Runs by Votteler and Keith didn’t produce much for the Reds as Aidan Barrera and his Black Pioneers teammates stopped them at the opening quarters end.

On the first play of the second quarter, Annel followed teammate Lucas Dyra around right end and scored from 45 yards out for the Red Pioneers second touchdown. Dyra made a great block that cleared the way for Annel and resulted in the 12-0 lead.

The Black team didn’t want to fall further behind so they kicked up their offense and went to work. A nice 19-yard run by David Emmart followed by Jack Daltion’s short gain was then followed by a completion from Rodriguez to Sam Basiorka. Red’s Dyra was there for the stop.

The Black Pioneers' Connor Marth (with ball) asks Red defenders Erin Keene and others who tackled him.

But no one could catch Rodriguez when he took the snap and went 21 yards untouched down the right sideline and scored the Black Pioneers first touchdown of the game.

Cutting the lead in half got the Black Pioneers back in contention, but the celebration hadn’t settled yet when Red’s Jacob Mucha lofted a pass to Dyra that regained the two touchdown advantage. The 40-yard play gave Red an 18-6 lead.

Approaching the end of the first half, the Black Pioneers hoped to cut into the lead again but the quick hands of Red's Annel made things difficult. But right before halftime, the Black Pioneers struck the endzone again. 

Basiorka ran faster than anyone else and swept around right end like a cheetah for a 36-yard touchdown that ended the first half with an 18-12 score.

After an offense-filled first half, the defenses took over after the break. Each team had several players pick up their defensive prowess, stopping running attempts over and over.

For the Red Pioneers, Annel and Weston seemed to know where each Black offensive play was headed before the snap. For the the Black Pioneers, Aidan Berrara led his team with numerous stops. Throw in some big stops from Carson Conrad, Matthew Durkin and Basiorka and the relentless Black Pioneers defense shut down the Red Pioneers offense.

The Red team defense tried to hold on to the lead and nearly did until late in the game when Berrara again got loose and couldn’t be caught. He went 37 yards for the final score of the day. His touchdown run saw him start out left, but he quickly spun all the way around in a big loop and found the right sideline more appealing.

With Berrara’s touchdown, the Black Pioneers evened the game at 18-18, which is how the teams ended their Homecoming battle.

Speaking of his game-tying score, Berrara said, “I went that way so I could trick the kids that I don’t have the ball. But I did, and I scored a touchdown because I tricked them and was thinking this was going to be an easy touchdown.”

When asked how he could improve he simply said “Grab more flags, that’s it!”

For the Red Pioneers,  Brady Dahl's defensive skills stood out. “I like playing football, I like having fun and getting flags and playing with my team.”

But that wasn’t the only thing Dahl liked.

“After our practice we get to go to the park sometimes, and I really like that” he said.

Other Pioneers who gave their all in the Homecoming game were: Alexander Huff, Erin Keene, Connor Nellis, Jacob Mucha, Jackson Tiernan and Grady Malnar for the Red Pioneers; and Brody Wantroba, Matthew Jarmoska, Connor Marth, Lukas Dill and Jayd Bedell for the Black team.

Coaches Jim Rodriguez and Mark Jarmoszka led the Black Pioneers; and Vince Annel and Kevin Keith directed the Red Pioneers.

Game 2

Rhett Capps, of the White Pioneers, tries to elude the hands of Navy Pioneer Max Fahey during their Homecoming clash.

The second flag contest saw the White Pioneers take on the Navy Pioneers. Much like the first game, excitement was clearly visible on both sidelines. 

The Navy team was led by coaches Kyle Hastings and Joe Hallberg; Jim Dornbos and Chad Capps headed the White.

The Blue Pioneers got first shot on offense. It didn’t take long to notice that one player was going to be a factor throughout the game. When the Blue Pioneers tried to run, the White Pioneers Luke Rost was there to make the stop. Whenever Rost was on the field on either side of the ball, he was a major part of each play.

The Navy Pioneers couldn’t move the ball offensively and quickly turned the ball over to the White Pioneers offense. Kaden Kickert took the White’s first offensive play 15 yards with a run which came to an end when Ethan Krueger of the Navy defense introduced himself.

On the very next play, Rost was back in the game, and he proceeded to make others look like they were standing still. He gazelled past everyone during a 25-yard sprint to the endzone. With the touchdown, the White Pioneers led 6-0.

Three-straight runs were called in the next series of the Navy offense. Christian Czerwonka, Tyker Shankman and Derek Mraz did the leg work. On fourth down, Mraz connected with Dylan Mikols via the pass but White defender Daniel Soltes was able to make the stop and force a turnover on downs. Rost, Rhett Capps and Kickert also added stops during the Navy offensive efforts.

Back on offense when the game resumed in the second quarter, the White Pioneers stayed on the ground with efforts from Landen Cooper, Adam Hoak and Caleb Michalczewski, but a stiff Navy defense led by Mikols, Krueger and Mraz easily stopped each play.

Trying to get even, the Navy team's Kyle Hastings, Max Fahey and Krueger found gaining yards on the ground tough due to the quickness of the White defenders. Capps, Rost and Soltes swarmed to the ball and each made stops to get the ball back to their team.

Kickerts tried one last attempt to score before halftime but was stopped by Navy Pioneer Liam Kissane.

Leading 6-0 at halftime, the White Pioneers were back on offense to open the second half. Rost sprinted around right end and looked like he’d score again but a misstep stopped his effort 25-yards later when Kissane made the Navy stop.

The next three runs -- two by Capps and one for Cooper -- didn’t make much of a dent in the Navy defense with Kissane, Krueger and Mikols grabbing White flags.

Thinking he has a clear path to the endzone, White Pioneer running back Caleb Michalczewski doesn't realize that sneaky quick Navy Pioneer Dylan Mikols is showing the world he has his flag in hand. 

Forcing the turnover on downs, the Navy offense again had their shot at tying the game but like before, the White Pioneers defense was stingy and gave very little. Rost was at his peak grabbing flags left and right with three-consecutive stops as the third quarter ended.

Opening the fourth quarter, the White team looked to create some space on the scoreboard as time ticked on. Seeking an insurance score, the White Pioneers went to their stud and let Rost do his thing.

With 5 minutes left in the game, Rost struck again. He broke free from everyone and pulled away for his second score of the game, a 40-yard TD run.

The White defense kept the Navy Pioneers scoreless in the waning minutes even though Mraz, Michael Whitten and Kreuger tried their best to advance the ball downfield. Too much Soltes and Kickerts defense kept the shutout intact and the White Pioneers finalized a 12-0 Homecoming win.

The Navy Pioneers defense worked hard. Leading the way was Krueger. 

“I run fast, and I can see where the ball is going. I usually push the guy in front of me to get to the tackle. I think I can run faster and get the ball, but (I'm) not sure how much more.”

Krueger added, “I need to get better at grabbing more flags; that’s what I think I need to do better.”

Rost, of the White Pioneers, was asked about his efforts in the win.

“I was just seeing if people were running as fast as me, and I would just stop and let them run past me. And then I would just run.”

Rost continued, “I like playing offense because I get to carry the ball. We have a great offensive line and great defense. Daniel Soltes does great on the line; he blocks pretty good, and then it’s easy to get to the outside.”

Rost has scored 6 touchdowns on the season so far and thinks he will score a few more.

A Navy Pioneer tries to set the line assignments against White in the Homecoming game.

For coach Dornbos, coaching flag football is a change of pace.

“It’s different coaching little kids than coaching varsity players,” he said. “They tend to not pay attention, so it's repetitions, that’s all it is, repetitions and even that is pretty hard. 

“Seeing kids that had no idea what to do at the beginning and now running for 25 yards is what is enjoyable. I like seeing them. But we still have a ways to go. But some kids like Kickert are players; he does everything. I enjoy teaching. but when I see kids come back next year, that’s when I will really like it.”

Other White Pioneers who added to the win were: Logan Fei, Keegan Fogarty, Jake Dornbos and Brady Hoenig. Showing their skills for the Navy Pioneers were Matthew and Timmy Hallberg and Jack Clifton.

The kindergarten and first-grade Pioneers cheerleaders performed at both games. Alyssa Abed, Layan Elbanna, Olive Peterson, Staudt Graysen, Summer Vahl, Kylee Votteler, Kenzie Whitlow kept the crowd entertained and excited.

Today's Schedule: Season Schedule