Thursday, October 30, 2008

Local youth team rocks league


Santa Barbara’s next generation of football talent is staking its claim as one of the best ever.
In the first eight games of the Youth Football League season, the Santa Barbara Chargers haven’t lost. Along the way, the Chargers have outscored opponents 306-18.

Even more impressive perhaps is the 25-member team has notched a couple of near-perfect games, during which defensive coach Anthony Giovanacci said opponents didn’t gain a single offensive yard.
“The kids are just more physical than any other teams around,” he said.
While the Chargers have seen success on the football field, it’s the determination the team of 12-,13- and 14-year-olds has shown in the classroom and during free time that impresses head coach Paul Espinosa most.
Since taking over as head coach in 1999, Espinosa said his focus has been on ensuring his team plays as one unit despite what side of town a player may live on.
And that’s not always easy, he said, noting that each year a new group of kids, some from Santa Barbara’s gang-riddled East and West sides, end up on his team.
“It’s both sides of town and now these kids are playing together as one,” Espinosa said. “I’m very proud of them.”
From poring over report cards to conducting meetings with parents, Espinosa said he and his six assistant coaches keep close tabs on the behavior of the athletes.
When disciplinary problems arise or grades begin to slump, he said team members sit out until the issues are remedied.
“We go beyond football,” Espinosa said. “They’re good kids. They’re staying out of trouble. They’re doing something positive.”
At a Chargers practice yesterday, Giovanacci said two players did homework instead of practice to bring their grades up.
The coach said he feels the Chargers and the Santa Barbara YFL league in general are successful examples of what young people can do when they’re provided opportunities.
Giovanacci reemphasized that the point goes beyond simply being great on the football field.
“Having a great football team is a good thing, but having these kids leave this team as great human beings is the ultimate goal,” he said.
Giovanacci pointed out the makeup of the Chargers is the same as those teens currently facing murder chargers for three recent gang-related homicides in Santa Barbara.
Even in the midst of such violence, he said it’s impressive these athletes have steered their young lives in the right direction. And much of that success could be the result of football.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these kids stay out of trouble,” he said. “[Coach Espinosa] cares just as much about their off-field behavior as their on-field behavior.”
Charger’s tight end Polo Torres, 13, said his favorite part about being on the team is playing football with friends.
Asked if the East and Westside gang rivalries negatively impact the team, Torres said it does not.
“It doesn’t really affect us because we play as one big family,” he said.
Coaching the Chargers is a longstanding family tradition for Espinosa, whose father coached the team from 1974 to 1999, when he took the reins.
During his father’s tenure, the 32-year-old Espinosa played on the team and said it was a valuable, positive outlet.
“It kept me entertained,” he said. Now “we’re trying to keep these kids as entertained as we can.”
That being said, the emphasis is still very much on football and having a good time. And so far this season, the good times have come at the expense of other teams.
As the defensive coach, Giovanacci said he feels the Chargers’ dominance on the defensive side of the ball has played a major role.
He said the intent is never to hurt anyone, but other coaches have criticized the Chargers for being too physical.
“In football, that’s the ultimate compliment,” he said.
The Chargers’ mettle will be put to the test this Saturday at Bishop Diego High School, where they’ll square off against undefeated Westlake.
Regardless of whether the Chargers finished the season undefeated, Espinosa said his squad has already been invited to a tournament in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend.
He said the only problem is funding. In order to make the trip, he said the team has to raise roughly $7,500 between now and then.
Espinosa said anyone interested in contributing to the travel fund could reach him through the Web site by searching for Santa Barbara Chargers.
Giovanacci said it’s common at youth football games for parents to pass around a donation jar each time their team scores. The money goes to the program for equipment and travel, he said.
This year has been especially bountiful for the Chargers, but they’re still short on funds.
“We’ve scored so much that we’ve raised triple digits in one game,” Giovanacci said.
The Chargers’ game against Westlake starts at 3:15 p.m. and is free.

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