Head coach Sarge Truesdell isn’t entirely sure what his Kenai Peninsula Pop Warner Junior Midget team lost Saturday in Murrieta, California, but he is entirely certain what his team won.
The Saints fell 34-27 to the Imperial Valley (California) Sun Devils in the Best of the West Showdown. That Saints ended up in this game because they were not eligible for the Pop Warner Super Bowl after defeating the Spokane North Falcons on Nov. 21 in Camas, Washington, in the Division III Northern Region Championships of the Pacific Northwest Region.
“When you lose a game for a big trophy like the state title game, that heartbreak can last a lifetime,” Truesdell said. “When you lose a game like this, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Looking back, the memories will be just fine.”
The Saints are a juggernaut, finishing 8-1 this season after going 7-0, 7-0, 7-2 and 9-0 in previous years. The team, made up mostly of eighth-graders ranging from 95 to 155 pounds, had some players together since they were 4, and most had been together since 7.
Yet Truesdell, who started coaching this group in 2009 after serving as head coach for Soldotna’s small-schools state title in 2006 and assistant for titles in 2007 and 2008, had seen Imperial Valley play and knew it would be a tough game.
“When I was leaving home, I told so many fans and friends and family that either it was going to be close or we were going to get blown out,” said Truesdell, also the principal at Skyview Middle School.
After stopping Imperial Valley’s first drive and scoring on a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Jersey Truesdell, the blowout looked to be taking shape as speedy Imperial Valley scored on three plays 80 yards or longer to take a 21-7 lead into halftime. The Saints got the ball to start the second half, but a series of miscues stopped their drive and Imperial Valley was suddenly up 27-7.
The Saints had only 17 of their 23 team members there due to other commitments. Three or four were banged up.
“I’ve coached a lot and have a lot of experience in sports, and I really thought there for a second that we were going to get blown out,” Truesdell said. “The kids had a lot of opportunities to stick their heads in the sand and didn’t.
“These kids are used to winning by a lot. We chant things like poise and discipline in practice all the time, but you never know how they will react when the ball is rolling so badly.”
One of the Saints’ top players, Mekhai Rich, hurt his wrist, so seventh-grader Dawson Fox was inserted into the game and immediately broke off an 80-yard touchdown run that brought the Saints back to life.
The Saints got the ball back, and again Fox keyed a drive that ended with Hudson Metcalf catching a 20-yard touchdown pass from Truesdell to get the Saints within one score.
Then in the fourth quarter, Truesdell threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Hieber, and Truesdell ran in the conversion for a 27-27 game.
On the kickoff, the Saints kept the ball away from an Imperial Valley player who was so good, coach Truesdell said his team couldn’t touch him in open space, much less tackle him. But the kick went to an Imperial Valley backup running back, and he set his team up on the Saints’ 30.
“They leaned on us and scored with a minute and a half left,” Truesdell said.
The coach said there were some tears afterward, but that didn’t last too long.
“We went to an In-N-Out Burger, and they don’t have those up there,” Truesdell said. “As soon as we went there, you wouldn’t even know the kids had lost a football game.”
Truesdell said the game was webcast back on the Peninsula, and added SoHi coach Galen Brantley Jr. was among those impressed with the talent of the Saints. The coach added that an unbelievable number of people who lived in the Southern California area came to support the team, including a high school classmate of Truesdell’s that he hadn’t seen since high school.
So, despite the loss, Truesdell said this game was a perfect way to end the team’s run.
“Parents watching Pop Warner since their kids were 4 said they had never seen a more exciting game,” Truesdell said. “I’ve coached a lot of exciting games, but what made this one special was that the kids never laid down.”