The Montclair Pop Warner Bulldogs are now in their 11th season after beginning preseason practice Wednesday at Nishuane Park.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair High school football doesn’t start their preseason until next week, but for the local youth football teams, things kicked off this past week.

The Montclair Cobras, the local American Youth Football team, got started on Monday, July 30 while the local Pop Warner team, the Bulldogs, had their first practice on Wednesday, Aug. 1.

For the Cobras, this year is about two things — building on the successes of last season while also gearing up for next year, when they will celebrate 50 years of existence.

“What we consider a successful season is that injuries are to a minimum,” said Wil Young, who took over the organization from founder Howard Finney several years ago. “Everybody made the playoffs last year. I look at that as successful. Getting the kids, having the numbers to actually compete. Nowadays, everybody is seeing the numbers drop, so I look at it as successful [to have the numbers]. We’ve got kids coming back, so that’s a measure of success. Overall, we just give it as big thumbs up for last year.”

The Cobras also sent one team to Florida to compete for the American Youth Football (AYF) national title, where they finished fourth.

If there was one hiccup in 2017, it was a lack of numbers for the U12 team. For AYF, the teams are organized by age. It’s possible that players or teams can play up or down one year in a pinch, and last season saw the Cobras have to combine their U12 and U11 teams.

The upside, Young said, is that the younger players who made up the bulk of the team had a chance to really improve against the general U12 teams they faced.

This year, the numbers look good and Young feels he will be able to field all three levels  — U11 or Pee Wee, U12 or Junior Varsity and U13, their varsity team.

For the Bulldogs, numbers are also an issue, but Garland Thornton, who heads up the program, feels this season should be a good one.

“We’re hoping to have at least three or four teams,” he said. “We’ve been averaging at least three teams—four including flag—between the ages of five and fourteen. So we’re hoping to get enough kids to fill those levels.”

For both programs, concerns about player safety, as well as the seemingly endless activities kids have to choose from have weighed the numbers down. Both organizations used to average well over 100 players a year and now see less than 100.

“We’re just trying to find new ways to get more kids out,” Thornton said. “Especially first time kids who want to be more involved with the sport.”

Thornton said newcomers made up about 70 to 80 percent of Bulldogs teams last season — mostly at the lower levels — and he’s optimistic those kids will be back, and bring some friends with them.

“We’ve been fortunate, over the past few years, to have had numerous families each year carry us through the programs,” Thornton said. “They’re now going through the high school program. Now we’re just starting all over, re-introducing ourselves to new families in Montclair and rebuilding the program numbers.”

Part of what helps both programs is a strong commitment from the high school team and coach John Fiore.

There’s a long line of former Cobras and Bulldogs residing on the Mounties roster. Starters Bo Bigelow and Gary Robinson were both Bulldogs, while Charles Murphy Jr. and Willie Matthews came from the Cobras. Josh Crawford and Max Jennings are two Mounties who played for both youth football clubs.

Young said he’s impressed with what Fiore has done with products from both feeder programs, and how he is able to mold players to fit the Mounties scheme. Both the Bulldogs and Cobras use elements of the Mounties’ offense but what the high school uses is, of course, more advanced.

“They do an absolutely tremendous job,” Young said. “Their record speaks for itself.”

Montclair Cobras president Wil Young is balancing fundraising for the 2018 season and preparing for the program’s 50th anniversary next year.

Young said Fiore has a big impact on his organization and not just in giving them plays to run and an example to follow.

“It goes beyond the Xs and Os on the field,” Young said. “He supports us in coaching clinics, since his start here, he’s there on game day. Makes sure we have what we need. He’s very supportive throughout the year.”

Thornton echoes that.

“Since the day he came on board, he’s helped our youth programs,” Thornton said. “He became a coach with us for a couple of years, coaching our flags and mighty mite levels.  He always holds youth coaching football forums throughout the course of the season to make sure we’re on the same page and teaching proper techniques for the kids.He tries to bridge that gap between the youth program to high school.”

That’s important, as Fiore has to battle the urge for parents to send their kids to private schools.

“It’s tough for the high school coach,” Young said, “because no matter how much we push the Mounties — and we want to build Mounties out here — there’s still that thing where kids run off to private school. But we want to keep our kids home and build on the [Mounties] legacy.”

Aside from a commitment from the high school, both programs require money, so donations and fundraising are critical.

The Cobras are planning a television raffle and a “Wing Night” at Just Jake’s, though the date on that hasn’t been set yet. Young said it will be a $10 entry fee for all the wings you can eat.

They also take donations through the website, and have had several generous donors who have helped them raise money for new helmets, an equipment shed and their trips to Florida for the championship tournament.

The Montclair Cobras run through agility drills at Glenfield Park on July 30, 2018.

The Cobras are also gearing up for next season and, in addition to raising money for 2018, have raised funds for things like new uniforms, helmets and other gear to celebrate their mid-century milestone.

Meanwhile, the Mounties have their ninth annual Bulldog Fish Fry on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 33 Woodland Ave. and then a calendar raffle later in August. Their main fundraiser has become a Powder Puff game in October.

“We do an annual game with the moms of the program, in which we get the moms to come out and train for a couple of weeks,” Thornton explained. “Then the moms play a game, but they also pledge money, part of which goes to the Bulldogs program.”

They also donate a significant portion to the Montclair chapter of Angie’s Angels, a breast cancer foundation.

Both programs are currently accepting new players and are open to signups. The Cobras can be found at Glenfield Park starting at 6  p.m. on weekdays, while the Bulldogs will be based at Nishuane Park for preseason, also starting at 6 p.m.