Seven of Syracuse’s very own sixth graders were just ranked the seventh team at Football University’s National Championship.
Their wins come thanks to the efforts of their coaches Simi Cazeau, Spenser Paskett, Brandon Greenwood, Logan Haney, Jason Gold, Moses Tauteoli, and head coach Mike Haney; all but Jason and Moses are from Syracuse. All of them coached this brand-new team for nothing more than the love of the game.
Football season is Coach Haney’s favorite time of year. Before he started coaching, he played as a kid. After graduating from the University of Utah, he refereed high school football while waiting for his kids to get old enough to play. When the oldest of his four sons started to play, Mike gave up reffing to coach them all. He’s lived here in Syracuse for over 15 years with his wife, sons, and two daughters.
Most recently, Mike, Simi, Spencer, Logan, Brandon, and Ryan Hardy had been coaching the Wasatch Front Football League for a few years together. In fact, their Syracuse team won the 2020 Mini Bowl for the fifth grade. Not only that, but they had been undefeated for nearly three straight years. In an effort to challenge themselves, the team made the move to join the Ute Conference. Among their competitors were the best teams from Davis County to Utah County. Many of the other teams held tryouts, with nearly a hundred players to craft the perfect offensive and defensive lines. Meanwhile, in Syracuse, the coaches worked with what they had. Since Clearfield City cut their recreational football program, they welcomed a few Clearfield players to their team. Out of 72 teams across Utah, they finished the season in the top 8. In the end, the teams they lost to ended up winning first, second, and tied for third.
On the other hand, FBU holds fifth-through eighth-grade National Championship tournaments that are made up of all-star teams from regions across the nation. This post-season all-star tournament runs in two parts from the end of November to December. When the Utah FBU President personally asked Mike to be the head coach for the sixth-grade team, Mike hesitated. He is loyal to his team, and he knew he wanted as many of his players to represent his team. His solution was to invite his team to try out for the FBU team without telling them he would be coaching. That way, the players that chose to try out would do it because they wanted to compete with the best in Utah. Players from all over the state came out for the tryouts. In total, over 80 kids tried out. Then, they painstakingly picked 26 kids from 13 different districts. There were so many great athletes represented. As a result, seven of the players were from Syracuse and two from West Point, which made them the majority. Many of the other players were the sole representatives of their schools.
From tryouts to their first regional game, they only had three weeks to develop the team. They practiced together on Tuesdays and Saturdays, alternating the location from Davis County to south Salt Lake County to accommodate all the commuting players. Local schools were generous and shared their fields with the team, lighting the field for the late-night practices. After eight practices, the team was finally on the same page. Eleven players were doing completely different jobs every play toward a shared goal. One player who misses his assignment can ruin the play for everyone else. Yet, when a player messes up, he will have an opportunity to learn from that mistake and improve the very next play.
“Mistakes are only bad if we don’t learn from them,” Mike told his team. Together, this team representing Utah fulfilled Mike’s motto and became “better every day.”
First, all teammates had to pay their dues. It was a national competition after all, so it required the team to travel to play. Even in the midst of a pandemic, they held a virtual fundraiser. They raffled off gift baskets online. The community did a fantastic job of supporting the team and helping to defer some of the costs for the team.
Then came the competition. Three California regions were their first competition; however, the FBU prides itself in its strict registration process. In order to play, the organization asks for birth certificates, class grades, and even a headshot. It’s all a part of an effort to reduce cheating within the program. While our Utah team had paid its dues and submitted all the necessary paperwork, when they arrived in California, they found that their opposing teams had not done the same. While they were regional champions by forfeit, they continued practicing together in preparation for the national championship. At this point, they had less than three weeks left.
Finally, the national competition began in Naples, Florida. All the games took place in a complex called Sports Paradise, and all the players would agree it was paradise. The stadium had turf fields. Event organizers greeted the players with merchandise to commemorate their achievement of reaching the national level. There were eight total regions facing off.
In their first game, our Utah team played a team from Ohio. A 6’4” quarterback weighing nearly 200 pounds faced them on the other side. Try as they might, they ended up losing to Ohio 6 – 20. At the time, December 17th, the University of Utah football team had not yet kicked off their own game against Ohio State at the Rose Bowl. So, the coaches tried to lighten the mood among their players and hoped aloud that the U would perform better than they had against Ohio State. Coach Kyle Whittingham, the University of Utah head coach, decided to reach out. Coach Whittingham sent the team a video message of encouragement. He wished them the best of luck and advised them to get back up and get going.
“I don’t know who was more excited, the players or the parents,” Mike said.
Next, the team faced the winning region out of Texas. At halftime, they were down 12 to 6. Coach Haney said, “All of the kids on the team were the best players on their regular season teams. They were used to being the big dog, and, now, they were playing on a team of all ‘big dogs’ and playing against teams that were all made up of ‘big dogs’ from across the country, and I believe the team was questioning themselves, given what happened in California. Were they really good enough to compete with these powerhouse teams like Ohio and Texas?” The coaches knew they were, but did the players? So, at halftime, the coaches challenged them to believe in themselves and believe in each other and go out and just play football. The team’s moral shifted, and they came out and scored on the 2nd play and held on to the lead until the 4th quarter, when TX took a 4-point lead. They overcame a couple 2nd-half turnovers and threw a pass into the endzone that would have won the game but fell out of the receiver’s hands. Walking away, the loss stung, but they knew that they could compete with the best teams in the country.
With that renewed confidence in their final game, our team faced off against the champion team of the entire Northeast region. They had the momentum and teamwork needed to clinch a win, beating that team 24-0. That placed them in seventh overall. Texas took third, and Ohio took second. All the coaches were very proud of their players.
“If you know any of them, you love them because they are fantastic kids who represented Utah very well, on and off the field,” Mike wrote in a Facebook post after the tournament.
Now, the players and coaches are looking forward to next season. Already, one player sent all his coaches an email asking how he can improve this year. That’s the kind of determination Coach Mike likes to see, because more than any sport, football requires kids to be smart and focused. He plans to stay with his original team through the seventh grade Ute Conference. Coach Simi reminds the players of their goals, Coach Spenser reminds them they are loved, and Coach Greenwood is their football encyclopedia, which will come in handy for the kids as they get older.
Every coach has their lingo. Every school calls the same plays differently. So, to help the kids in Syracuse prepare for high school, Mike is teaming up all with the coaches in the community. As Vice President of the Syracuse Ute League, his job is to help the coaches get ready. By coordinating efforts between high school teams and peewee teams, all players can learn upper-level plays and lingo. When these players get to high school, they’ll already be familiar with their new coach’s strategies. Then, Syracuse will only see better and better players represent their local schools.
This team competed well because every player knows his position very well. These coaches are already predicting football scholarships for their players years down the road.
“I won’t be surprised if we have five or six kids get scholarships,” Mike said. In the meantime, their coaches will keep an eye on them until they do.
Do you know of any other accomplishments out of Syracuse? Please reach out so we can recognize our fellow community members in all that they’re doing! Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 801-624-9652.