Before the Under the Lights flag football regional championship game, Santa Clarita Raiders head coach, Jose Ovalle, was giving a motivational pregame speech to his players.
“We came all this way. Failure is not an option. Do you see those trophies across the way,” he asked the team of 9- and 10-year-olds.
Each player nodded his or her head. One of them took it a step further.
“One of the kids said ‘Yeah, they have our names on them,” Ovalle said. “That even inspired me.”
After the talk, the Raiders took the field on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Perris and won the regional championships to take home their fourth title in as many years.
The team went through a two-month winter season that culminated with a regional tournament that featured competition from around California and Arizona. The playing conditions were unlike any that the Raiders had faced all season.
“They were playing in the rain,” said Ovalle. “The kids’ hands were freezing. We got hand warmers for them, it was that bad. We played from 10 in the morning to six at night in the rain. They battled, they never gave up.”
Under the Lights flag football is a national program that provides playing opportunities for boys and girls from first to eighth grade. The Raiders players, in particular, have been together since they were six years old.
The team has been competitive every season. Last spring, it even earned a trip to the national championships, which were held at UCLA.
Ovalle has coached the team every year and said they have become like family.
“I know every single player individually,” he said. “I just don’t coach them. I care so much bout them. I know how to talk to them, exactly what’s going on in their lives. They’re great kids, great families. I can’t say more about them.”
He also credits the parents for helping make all of the Raiders’ success happen. If the support and success continue, the team could be looking at another appearance in the national tournament.
If the Raiders win again in the spring regional tournament, they qualify for the spring national tournament.
The spring season begins on March 19 and the first game will be on April 17 and Ovalle is just as happy to get the kids involved in football as he is to get them to a national tournament.
“Flag football is a great introductory level of football,” Ovalle said. “There’s no hits or anything like that. It’s a very competitive sport where we’re teaching the fundamentals of how to run a route, catch the ball, speed and agility. Starting them off there is great and then put them in some tackle football. It’s important to keep our kids involved.”