Tough defense and a strong run game powered the Santa Clarita Wildcats to a “Super Bowl” victory over the Simi Valley Bulldogs in the Gold Coast Youth Football League Bantam championship showdown.
The team, coached by Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez, emerged victorious, 22-12, on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Ventura High School, completing the season as champs on a seven-game win streak.
Santa Clarita utilized a wedge play, similar to that of the Philadelphia Eagles’ “Tush push.” Wildcats quarterback Jai Haddad earned Super Bowl MVP honors from his team after running the play to success throughout the contest and adding one rushing touchdown. With no kicking, two-point conversions and not much throwing, the Bantam games are typically run-heavy. Haddad made one of the best plays of the day with a conversion pass to Nathan Lombardo.
Jake Sahagun also ran in a touchdown, while Chris Avila added a conversion rushing score. Evan Diez also scored a rushing touchdown at the helm of the wedge play.
Coach Diez was in awe of his offensive line’s consistent play.
“That wedge play couldn’t have worked without the teamwork of the offensive line,” Diez said in a phone interview. “That play really broke down their defense. They couldn’t stop us. It gained a ton of small yardage that added up, and ate up a lot of time, too.”
Harrison Walters, Tony Higgins, Brady Jensen and center Charlie Roknipour did the work in the trenches to clear up space for Haddad. Wide receivers Jax Martinez and Noah Estrada also played well, blocking on the sides or up the field.
On the other side, Santa Clarita’s defense was sensational despite allowing well above its average with 12 points given up on the day. The Wildcats defense allowed just 72 points on the season, with 40 of those points allowed in the team’s 0-3 start to the year.
The Wildcats stuffed the Bulldog run game with help coming from all 11 positions. The defensive line was led by Higgins and Jaxston Credo, who both shut down nearly every rush up the middle. Mason Potts, Benjamin Mora and Skyler Laureano also added some big tackles up front.
Cornerbacks Jackson Catanzarite and Stevie Brown were also ready for anything and stuffed the outside run.
The Bulldogs were able to break through here and there but were typically chased down by the two-way standouts Avila, Haddad, who both play linebacker, or the safety Evan Diez.
The Cats never trailed and registered their second victory this season over the Bulldogs. Santa Clarita took down Simi Valley, 20-6, earlier in the season and had similar success with the wedge play. The coaches opted to go all-in on the play and the gamble paid off with a championship trophy.
Hoisting that trophy was the furthest thing from coach Diez’s mind months ago after the team started 0-3. To see his team win seven straight games while allowing just 7.2 points a game was quite the accomplishment to the coach.
“That was a big deal,” coach Diez said. “When you lose your first three games and have new coaches, new kids, it’s really hard to overcome. You have to keep the kids and the parents motivated, the kids can’t drive to practice, and the parents get all their gear together. Once we won that first game, it was a turning point. It was a moment these kids and parents never had. It gave us momentum and we never stopped gaining momentum after each game.”
“I’m really proud of all the players and coaches for not giving up after three losses. That’s a really hard thing to do. It was a great Cinderella story and I’m really proud of these kids.”
Of the 22 players on the team, only about five Wildcats had played tackle football before. The team endured a long summer learning the game on and off the field.
“They learned all about discipline, teamwork, and their bodies,” Diez said. “Even us coaches grew a lot this season. There were things we thought would work in the beginning of the season that didn’t, but we figured it out. Quite a few players were moved around because we realized players would be better in other positions.”
For now most of the kids are in other sports like flag football or baseball. Diez will be back to coach the Bantam team next season and hopes to return all the players and coaches he can. The coach expects a big jump for some of his players who will be entering their second seasons as they return to the GCYFL as champions.
“I can only imagine, as good as they did at the end of the season, them in their second season,” Diez said. “There’s a huge difference between your first and second season. They’ll have a better understanding of their bodies, the game, coaching, what other teams do and how great they can be.”