2018 has been a tumultuous year for the Hertfordshire Cheetahs Junior Team. Unprecedented highs have been dampened by painful lows, and whilst by all metrics this year has been the programme’s most successful on record, there still lingers the question of what might have been, and what may be.
The season got off to a stuttering start. After a successful offseason of recruitment, a residential training camp, an influx of coaches and a couple of promising pre-season scrimmages, the Cheetahs were due to kick off against the Sussex Thunder in their regular season opener. However, following a beat-down by the London Blitz (and despite a win over the Thames Valley Tigers), the Sussex Thunder withdrew from league competition prior to their scheduled fixture with Herts. The Cheetahs were 1-0, without playing a competitive snap.
Next up, the London Warriors. However, 24 hours before KO, the Warriors (under questionable circumstances) asked BAFA to postpone the fixture. BAFA obliged, and the Cheetahs entered June (9 months after rookie day) without having played a game. Their first test? The undefeated National Champion London Blitz, who had defeated the Cheetahs 48-0 a year earlier. In what many anticipated to be a walkover, especially given the Cheetahs rust and plethora of rookies, the Cheetahs led for much of the game. A pick six and a botched punt snap sealed their fate (20-13), in a game which saw 7 turnovers by the boys in yellow and black. At 1-1, the Cheetahs knew that their post-season destiny would likely come down to the winner of their next game, seven days later, against the Solent Seahawks Academy.
A year earlier, the Cheetahs had lost to Solent by a safety in the Southern Trophy Final. A pre-season friendly had ended 14-14, so both teams knew this would be a tight affair. Except it wasn’t. The Cheetahs, led by QB Liam MacGovern, then by stand-in Safety turned QB James Abegglen, put on a dominant display in all three phases. Powered on the ground by Ashley Gatulah and Jack Stodel, and with a huge defensive performance by Jack Preece, Byron Kealy and Patryk Cwiertnia – the Cheetahs won out 38-0, securing themselves the title of semi-finalists elect.
A 48-0 win over lowly Thames Valley would follow, before a forfeit by the Cobham Cougars left the Cheetahs with a tasty match-up against the Warriors to end the regular season. With both teams ravaged by school holidays, injuries and fatigue, the Warriors ran the Cheetahs closer than they would have liked, but Ollie Mulcahy (replacing the injured Liam MacGovern), led his team to the all-important win – despite a last-minute flurry from Warriors.
At 5-1 the Cheetahs had booked their place in the National Semi Final, with a showdown in Finsbury Park against the London Blitz as the obstacle between the Cheetahs and their first Brit Bowl final. Unfortunately for the Cheetahs they were overawed by the occasion, turning out their worst performance of the season when it mattered most. Blitz ran out 44-2 winners, and sent themselves straight back to the National Championship Game. Thankfully, however, the Cheetahs Semi-Final berth did ensure a National Final for the squad, and with Manchester’s win in the North, the Cheetahs learned they would play the East Kilbride Pirates for the National Plate at John Charles Stadium (Leeds) on Sunday 26 August.
A “new kid on the block” in the National Championship conversation, the Cheetahs can reflect on 2018 as the year they arrived on the national stage, as a powerhouse in the South to at least rival the perennially successful London Blitz. With a strong core of players returning, and a huge intake from the existing Youth squad; the Cheetahs look like they are here to stay in the final stages of U19 football in the forthcoming seasons.
For the time being, however, the players and coaches are focussed on playing (and beating) East Kilbride, as they look to bounce back from the painful loss to Blitz. Despite the Semi Final loss, the Cheetahs have enjoyed an exceptional season. Indeed, the opportunity to appear in a National Final (live streamed and filmed by Onside Production), is a huge honour for the Cheetahs Juniors and organisation as a whole.
2018 has been mostly bright and when the final chapter is written, the players and coaches can reflect on how far they’ve come since re-joining league competition just one season ago. The story for this Junior team may end on Sunday, but 2019 promises to be even better.