Pop Warner program continues to shine with mitey mites national crown
By Anthony D. Alonzo Post-Tribune correspondent January 1, 2014 10:32PM
Longtime Pop Warner coach and president Tim Arvanitis speaks to Tri Town Raiders football players and parents at the club's banquet at China Buffet in Schererville on Dec. 30. The Raiders mitey mite team finished the year winning a national championship.
Updated: February 3, 2014 4:29PM
By December, most football fans have an idea where their favorite teams are going — or not going. High School gridiron is in the record books, good college teams are preparing for their bowl games and the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus. Important things are also happening at the Pop Warner level.
On Dec. 7, the Tri Town Raiders mitey mites football team of Schererville had a great day. In Florida for the program’s fifth attempt at a national championship, the squad of 8- and 9-year-old boys earned two victories in the Pop Warner Super Bowl and a place in the history books.
After gaining a 10-1 regular season record, the Raiders received an invitation to the Sunshine State and drew a line in the sand at the ESPN Wide World of Sports compound near Orlando. They stopped the Ormond Beach (Fla.) SandCrabs 14-0. In the second half of their “doubleheader”, the Schererville team grinded up the Millstone (N.J.) Eagles 39-6 to earn the sport’s top crown.
“I think we’re pretty awesome,” said Asher Tomaszewski, offensive and defensive lineman. “The Raiders are pretty good because they work their tails off all summer.”
Through a big smile, his teammate Joshua Kazmierski said that players know not to “mess around at practice” because they could be sentenced to do extra exercises.
Twenty-year veteran Pop Warner coach and current Tri Town president Tim Arvanitis said this young group of players has what it takes to be champions. Arvanitis has groomed area high school standouts, has seen program alumni make college rosters and can name a pro or two that he’s coached.
“We’re rough on (the players) in a loving way,” Arvanitis said of his assistants. “Our players earned that trip to Florida, and when they got there, they were in awe.”
At their 2013 season banquet held at China Buffet in Schererville, the team’s personality was on display. According to the coach, the elementary school students have the qualities of being hard workers with remarkable attention spans for their ages. They’re not selfish, and they have a lot of personality.
When he was called up, offensive and defensive tackle Leonardo Mendez paused before accepting his trophy and Super Bowl photo ID and lanyard. He performed an impromptu — though possibly practiced — dance to the amusement of his teammates. Arvanitis’ wife Robin, who has coached year-after-year of Pop Warner national champion dance squads, may have been taking notes on the performer as she handed him his mementoes.
Players rejoined their buddies in the buffet’s booths retelling stories of their mythical year or sharing jokes. Most had completed two seasons together by the time they earned their title.
In their game against the SandCrabs, the boys put seven points on the board in each half and generally saw their opponents “stall.” In the finale, the Raiders already had a 19-6 halftime advantage as they opted to run the ball on all but a few plays, thereby controlling the clock. Kicker Matthew Santana added 2-point extra-point kicks to their TDs.
“At the end of the game we told our coach that (the New Jersey team) was scared because we had our big pads on and our neck rolls, which made us look bigger,” said a group of Raiders players huddled in a booth including Kazmierski, Santana, Tomaszewski, Mel Hay, Aisen Henry, and Dylan Varkauskas. “The quarterback started crying when he saw us.”
Though his leadership has gotten results — five Super Bowl appearances and numerous state titles (not to mention the success of his wife’s dance and cheer program) — Arvanitis chose to focus on the potential that each young athlete has. He said the youth have to continue to be resourceful in all of their pursuits.
With his little brother Jaiden Spearman (WR and RB) in attendance getting his trophy, Eastern Michigan linebacker Ike Spearman made a similar connection between early learning and future success. The Eagles sophomore played on a 2007 Raiders team that competed for a Pop Warner national crown.
“It helps you build a winning mentality,” said the St. John native and Lake Central product. “It helps for the future, as far as how to handle being under pressure, how to handle winning and defeat as well.”
Arvanitis said the Tri Town program is like a club for all seasons — they have something for youths of most ages and abilities. He is focusing on promoting not only the championship-caliber teams, but also a new spring flag football division. Those teams will offer opportunities for athletes who have less experience or talent in the sport or who would thrive in a reduced-pressure environment.
As from the group of nine other fathers that have volunteered to assist coaching the mitey mite squad, Arvanitis said he gets a lot of support for the youth sports initiatives. But that sense of beneficence is not universal in the Tri Town area. The president said recent bans on Pop Warner promotional materials by Lake Central schools officials have put a dent in his ability to reach those who may benefit from the club’s offerings.
Football dad and volunteer coach Brian Kazmierski gave 110 percent to his son Joshua’s season, despite spending weeks recovering from a serious injury he suffered on their backyard basketball court.
“Look around,” the elder Kazmierski said with his son sitting nearby under a Seattle Seahawks cap. “What a group: great kids and great parents. We had a fun year.”