KISSIMEE, FLA. — A heartbreaking 26-19 overtime loss to a team from Apopka, Fla., led to a third place finish for the Monroe Lions in the American Youth Football National Tournament in Kissimmee, Florida.
The Lions' team of sixth-graders started the week strong by defeating the North Carolina Black Panthers 38-0. In this contest, the Lions scored quickly and often with three touchdowns from running back Jack Roberge, two from Isaah Johnson, and a score from Joey Keegan on a 10 yard pass from quarterback TJ Rohach.
This victory set the stage for an epic battle with the number 1 seeded Apokwa Lions representing the Southeast region. Apokwa came into the contest as the top ranked team in the country.
A Fight to the Finish
It was evident from kick-off that Apopka was physically superior and that Monroe would be in for its toughest test of the season. The Lions received the ball and started at their 40 yard line. After being unable to establish their running game, the Lions went to the air and scored on a fourth and ten with a 40 yard touchdown pass from Rohach to Johnson.
The Lions 6-0 lead was short-lived as Apokwa, on their first offensive series, used its speedy running attack to tie the game at 6-6. After the teams exchanged possessions throughout the first half, Apopka struck again with a 40 yard touchdown run giving them a 12-6 lead at halftime.
Apopka received the ball at midfield to start the second half and wasted no time scoring with their potent running attack. They converted the extra point and the Lions found themselves in what seemed an insurmountable hole trailing 19-6 midway through the 3rd quarter.
The atmosphere felt as if the game was getting away from Monroe quickly and many thought that a blowout was inevitable. However, the Lions didn’t quit. On the ensuing offensive series, Thomas Juliano took over at quarterback and hooked up with Rohach on a screen play giving the Lions the ball at the Apopka 12 yard line. Rohach then connected with Roberge on a dump pass and Roberge rumbled 12 yards diving to the right pile on for a touchdown.
After a strong Rohach run to convert the extra point, the Lions trailed 19-13 and were gaining momentum.
Nick Sentementes’ onside kick was recovered by Zach Minch and the Lions were in business.
Juliano immediately hooked up with Rohach on a screen pass and Rohach made several Apopka tacklers miss going 49 yards to the Apopka 1 yard line. Rohach then busted through the middle of the Apokwa defense, tying the game at 19-19.
The teams then exchanged possessions, including several defensive stands by the Lions when Apopka was within the Lions 10 yard line.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Lions threatened to score. Juliano hooked up with Devon DiCocco on a 40 yard pass play and another screen to Rohach and the Lions found themselves at the Apopka 30 yard line with just over a minute to play. However, the drive came to a hault on an interception and the contest went to overtime.
Both teams got the ball at the 10 yard line with four plays to convert a touchdown. Apopka got the ball first and scored on two running plays and converted the extra point, giving them a 26-19 advantage.
The Lions took over and after penalties on both sides found themselves fourth and 12. Rohach connected with Roberge who scored on a 12 yard run but the play was called back on a questionable block in the back call. Rohach again connected with Roberge but he was stopped at the Apopka two yard line.
The officiating crew called both teams to midfield and expressed that it was the greatest 6th grade youth football game that they had ever been a part of.
An emotional Rick Henderson said, "My boys showed that they could fight and persevere when they were physically outmatched. Apopka had given up one touchdown all season and their coaches could not believe that a bunch of kids from Monroe, significantly outsized and with less speed could compete with them. The boys were exhausted and banged up but never gave in. Frankly, it didn’t matter that we lost. These boys gave me and their teammates everything. This was the national championship game. I would go to battle with these kids every day of the week."
Apopka went on to win the tournament defeating the Edgewater Buccaneers 32-0.
Nipping the Generals
The Lions finished their week against the Oregon Generals, another team that physically outsized the Lions. The Lions took a 15-6 lead into halftime after Rohach hooked up with PJ Fox for a 40 yard touchdown and Fox kicked the extra point and a 5 yard run by Roberge on the last play of the half followed by a Rohach to Fox pass play for the extra point.
Oregon narrowed the Lions’ lead to 15-14 with a touchdown early in the third quarter and a 2 point conversion.
The Lions went back to their passing game and struck early in the fourth quarter. Juliano hooked up again with Rohach on a screen which went for forty yards and then Rohach plunged in from a yard out to make the score 21-14 Lions.
Oregon came back with a long drive resulting in a 5 yard touchdown run. After converting the extra point, the game was tied with 3 minutes to play.
The Lions took over on the Oregon 49 and, after a couple of running plays, Juliano hooked up on a long pass play with DiCocco that looked to put the Lions within the Oregon 5 yard line. However, the Oregon safety jarred to ball loose and Oregon took over at their own 5 yard line.
After two defensive plays by Roberge and Fox drove the Generals back to their one inch line, Roberge and Fox combined to tackle the Generals running back in the end zone for a safety, giving the Lions a 23-21 lead they would not relinquish.
Coach Rick Henderson was elated with the victory. "We had nothing left in the tank today," he said. "The boys were physically beaten up after the Apopka game. I am so happy that we ended the week with a victory. We got better this week. I am so proud of these boys."
During the week, the Lions linemen were forced to play on both sides of the ball and turned in tremendous efforts given that they were significantly outsized. Campbell Halloran, Curtis Fedorko, Michael Norling, Victor Harris, Jake Samuelmen, Minch, Sentementes, Michael Kusick, Josh Memmesheimer, Jacob McCarthy, Chris Texiera and George Lazor battled in the trenches all week. Cornerbacks Conor Mahony (two interceptions) and DiCocco (several outstanding open field tackles) were stellar.
The Lions would like to thank all of those who donated money to make the trip a success.