After a slow start to the season, the Santa Clarita Wildcats youth football team’s Bantam Division team has made its way to the “Super Bowl” of its league.
The Wildcats started off the season 0-3, but have since won six straight games, landing them a spot in the Gold Coast Youth Football League championship game.
A football head coach needs to have the respect of parents, players and coaches. So, naturally head coach Justin Diez, captain of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, has strived to do just that this season.
Diez took on the coaching role in hopes of teaching the 8, 9- and 10-year-old football players skills that will prepare the kids for a future in football and in the real world.
“The goal is to teach these kids leadership and discipline and to get them ready for high school football,” Diez said in a phone interview. “We want to teach them the art and skill of football. If they can learn that, they’ll be light years ahead once they get to high school.”
The Wildcats are led by their two-way standout captains, Evan Diez, Tony Higgins and Skylar Laureno. The three have been leading a team full of players new to the program — and to tackle football — all the way to the GCYFL Super Bowl.
“They’re unique because they played last year,” Diez said. “With most of the kids not playing last year, they’ve brought a little bit of maturity when it came to playing the game. They knew how to take a hit and knew the Santa Clarita Wildcat culture. We play clean games, everything is by the book, we don’t yell at the refs and we don’t let the parents, either. We try to have a culture that’s very respectful, one where parents want their kids to be part of. The culture that we want on the team involves teamwork, discipline, leadership and showing respect to the other team.”
Evan plays as one of the team’s tailbacks but also shares time at quarterback with Jai Haddad. Higgins plays on the line on both sides of the ball while Laureno plays tight end and defensive end. The three have been a vital part of a Wildcat defense that has turned some heads this season in the Bantam Division.
In eight games, Santa Clarita has scored nearly 160 points. The defense has allowed just 60.
“Defense is one the biggest highlights of our team,” Diez said. “They’ve given up very few points. At this age, it’s mostly running. Nonetheless, the D-line stops a lot of runs right at the line. Our corners and linebackers are cleaning up anything that gets past them.”
The Wildcats gave up 40 points in their 0-3 start to the season but have allowed just over three points a game since. The team finally broke into the win column after defeating the Newbury Park Steelers 39-0 in week four, eliciting a sigh of relief for the program and parents.
“Needless to say it was very rewarding,” Diez said. “We needed the pick-me-up ourselves. It was like a switch went off. All of the things we had preached, the light bulb went off with the kids and we never looked back from there.”
The slow start was rooted in the team’s lack of experience as the vast majority of the team had never played tackle football before. The captain and his coaches recruited numerous players to the Wildcats at local youth flag football games. The young Wildcats program needed the numbers and were without a Bantam team.
Diez commended his captains and coaches for leading the way and getting this team into winning form after just three games.
“They’re young kids and they’ve had to learn the game, learn teamwork and learn their positions,” Diez said. “Seventeen kids had never played before. It took them a solid month to figure out what it’s like to be in a game and play on a 53-yard wide field … With 17 new players, we had to figure out what these kids could do and mold them into what positions they’d be best at.”
The postseason has involved numerous familiar faces for the Cats. The team’s local rival, the Santa Clarita Grizzlies, defeated the Wildcats in week two, 6-0, but the Wildcats got their revenge when it mattered most and took down their rivals in the GCYFL semifinals.
The championship is the same pregame script but flipped, as the Wildcats will face a team they’ve already beaten. The Simi Valley Bulldogs will host the Wildcats, and are looking for a championship trophy as well as redemption, after falling 20-6 to Santa Clarita in the regular season.
The Wildcats are as motivated as ever to win but battle in practice in hopes of being named the “Beast of the Day” and “Player of the Week.” Both titles come with WWE-style championship belts that are bigger than some of the kids, but the Player of the Week title also earns the winner an honorary captain spot that week. MVPs are also named and awarded belts after games, giving Diez’s 22 players something to work for.
Diez coaches along with Joe Higgins, Jason Haddad, Paul Lombardo and Saul Avila, who all have sons on the team as well.
Diez was also quick to compliment team mom Ursula Diez, his wife.
“She coordinates everything with parents, pickups, carpools, snacks, everything on the back end and gets all of our parent volunteers ready,” Justin said. “She makes everything run and is really the unsung hero of the team. She’s organizing the team banquet.”
The coaches know winning isn’t everything and are hoping to see their team play a disciplined and hardworking game. An opportunity like this doesn’t come around often and Diez hopes his team can take away some great memories, as he and the parents will be.
“I’m hoping to see a big amount of energy from the kids, from warmups to the kickoff,” Diez said. “I just want to see a good, clean game. I want them to have fun but for this to be a memorable game for their whole lives. You can play football your whole life and never make a championship game, especially for the kids who haven’t really played before. It’ll be great for the parents and coaches. These kids had great experiences this year. We grew a lot as individuals but also as a team.”
The Wildcats and Bulldogs kick off in the Bantam Division Super Bowl at Ventura High School on Saturday at 10:15 a.m.