The 2013 Jr. Midget Panthers. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Villalobos.
The Panthers of North Long Beach has been a hidden gem since 2007, when they won the first-ever Pop Warner national championship. And to add to the many accolades, their Jr. Midget team has just been named conference champions after winning the Orange Bowl on November 3.
The team, part of the Orange Empire Conference—the nation’s second largest Pop Warner affiliation—finished this season 9-2. Composed of 11- to 13-year-old boys, they faced the team that previously conquered them at the Bowl: the San Clemente Tritons.
“They actually beat us in the last game of the season, 20-0,” said Coach Gabriel Villalobos. “But we got back at them at the Bowl.”
Running into overtime, the Panthers smacked the Tritons down 12 to 6.
Though Villalobos has been coaching for seven years in Long Beach, this is his first year as head coach after his older brother opted to take the year off. Despite his conference title, Villalobos remains humble and, more importantly, defensive of an organization who has earned respect for Long Beach and yet garners little attention from the city itself.
“We really don’t get the attention I think we deserve,” Villalobos said. “To be quite honest, North Long Beach Pop Warner was the first team crowned with a Pop Warner National Championship—[the Jr. Midget team] gave Long Beach that. Our history speaks for itself.”
That history is decorated with successes: 2008 marked them as National Champions at the Jr. Pee Wee level while the Midgets made it to the Super Bowl and the Pee Wees were named WESCON Champions and 2009 saw the Midgets and Jr. Midgets as runner-ups in the National Championship.
The fact that the association is small–ranging from 150 to 175 kids compared to other Pop Warner associations that average over 500 kids–makes their achievements even more astounding. More importantly, the association insists upon academic flair as much as it does athletic talent.
“We want to prepare these kids for high school,” Villalobos said. “My biggest thing—don’t get me wrong: I love to coach—is watching and getting these to grow up right. Hopefully I am just helping them make some good choices in life. Football is great but school is first. I always say, ‘When talent gets tired, hard work pays off.'”
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