Pop Warner football and cheerleading is coming to Watsonville.
Central Coast Pop Warner plans to begin this year with three teams for younger players, ages 5-11, then expand from there, said its president, Daniel Tavera.
“We wanted to start slow and not take on too much,” he said. “We want to start with three teams and every year or every two years add a team (as players get older).”
“We’re not expecting to come out and be a powerhouse, but we are expecting to do something for the kids and we want it to be a community program,” fellow co-founder Joel Ortiz said.
Pop Warner is in its 82nd year, and is the nation’s largest and oldest youth football and cheerleading organization. It serves approximately 400,000 youth ages 5-16, and is the only national youth sports organization that requires scholastic aptitude to participate and honors scholar-athletes, according to its website.
Central Coast Pop Warner was admitted last year to Peninsula Pop Warner, which is the national organization’s regional governing body for the Bay Area. To do so, it had to pay a $750 one-time fee, then get approved by PPW’s board of presidents. Rather than field teams right away, CCPW decided to wait until this season.
Peninsula Pop Warner was “ecstatic” about the addition of a Watsonville program, said its commissioner, Joseph Tobia. Peninsula Pop Warner is more than 50 years old, and Tobia, who has been with the organization for more than 30 years and commissioner since 1988, said he could not recall a Watsonville team ever having been an official member before.
There are now two Pop Warner programs in Santa Cruz County — Santa Cruz Pop Warner was founded in 1967. Tavera and Ortiz said the impetus to form the new program was when they planned to serve as coaches with Santa Cruz Pop Warner, and realized that many players were traveling from Watsonville to participate.
“The funny thing is a lot of people weren’t aware that Pop Warner isn’t here,” Tavera said.
The addition of Central Coast Pop Warner gives Watsonville two major youth football and cheer programs for elementary school and middle school youth. The Watsonville Jr. Wildcatz had three football teams for ages 5-12 that served about 100 children last year, as well as about 28 cheerleaders, Jr. Wildcatz president Ana Hernandez said. The Jr. Wildcatz are a member of the Monterey Bay Youth Football League, which serves approximately 1,100 youth in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Hernandez welcomed Pop Warner with some trepidation.
“We always welcome any new league that will keep kids in other activities and staying safe and off the streets,” she said. “But it is worrisome in some ways because we’ve always struggled with registration in years past. With a new league coming in, it will be only be more difficult.”
Ortiz said that while Central Coast Pop Warner officials believe they will benefit from being part of a large, well-run organization, their goal is to provide “another option” rather than to take away from the Jr. Wildcatz. Ultimately, both programs are looking to train youth in football and cheerleading and help them become productive citizens.
“We’d love to work with Jr. Wildcatz whatever way we are allowed to, whatever way we can,” Ortiz said. “That’s not one of our goals, to hinder them in any way.”
Hernandez said her hope was that the addition of a nationwide program like Pop Warner might bring more awareness to the city about youth football and cheerleading, and that way perhaps both programs could succeed.
Both will begin registering players next week. Central Coast Pop Warner will hold its first registration night Wednesday, and requires a $100 deposit for football and a $75 deposit for cheer.
“The fact that we are actually getting closer to sign-ups, a tangible thing, is super exciting, super exciting,” Ortiz said.
While the Jr. Wildcatz are based at Watsonville High, Central Coast Pop Warner is hoping to have its home football games at St. Francis Central Coast Catholic High School. The season runs from the end of August to early November, with Pop Warner featuring playoffs all the way up to national championship games.
Ortiz, who was CCPW’s president last year before deciding to focus on coaching, served as an assistant football coach at St. Francis last season. He plans to coach CCPW’s highest-level team, and move up as new levels are added when players get older, to prepare them to play in high school and beyond. The teams will be nicknamed the Spartans.
Ortiz said that the members of the board, including himself, Tavera and treasurer Rico Navarro, are looking for other members of the community to help Central Coast Pop Warner develop.
“It’s a process,” Ortiz said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. We know we need help, but it’s close. We’re getting there.”
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