Rising to The Challenge – going where no Cheetah Youth team has ever been, but falling short in the end; the 2018 season had some tremendous successes and a disappointing ending, but sets the stage for an exciting 2019.
The Cheetahs Youth team looked to come off an improved, but ultimately disappointing 2017 season with a new Head Coach and a commitment to make it to the playoffs for the first time in club history. A last-minute change in the rules regarding the top age of players and the elimination of dual-signing meant that the coaching staff would need to get creative with recruiting, with over 60% of the team moving up to the Juniors.
A chilly night in October brought out an excited group of young men yearning to play for the Yellow and Black. The team that trained through the rain and chill of Autumn was high on enthusiasm, but short of experience. Rookies were taught the basics and the few returners refined their skills under the tutelage of the coaches – kneeling in the mud to learn how to bring down a bigger opponent, running pass routes to get open and learning how to carry a wet and slippery ball through small gaps. The repeated drills, combined with a dedication to cardio work, served the young players well as we moved into contact as the calendar changed pages to 2018.
Santa was kind to the Cheetahs, gifting the rookies with shiny new helmets and shoulder pads. The returners finally got to hit someone! January means the start of contact drills – the chance to feel like the NFL players that they had been watching on the television. Unfortunately, the first day of contact brought a serious injury – but that moment served to create the theme of the season. Misfortune happens. How you react is important – get up, bounce back, keep fighting. The next play is your chance.
The Cheetahs refined their craft through the cold of the St Albans winter evenings, with rookies making big impacts on both sides of the ball. The end of March brought a friendly visit to the Essex Spartans. A combination training session brought both teams new skills, which then were put into practice with a scrimmage. Big plays were made by both teams, but the Cheetahs eked out a close victory, with stand-out center Seth Cyster-White coming away with the MVP nod with a TD and extra point conversion.
Another chance to compete came in mid-April, with a trip to Southampton, where the Solent Seahawks were hosting a fund-raising friendly tournament. The Farnham Knights also made the trip down for a day of great football. The Cheetahs started against the Knights, where some costly mistakes lead to the Farnham squad getting twice the offensive snaps of the Cheetahs. However, a stout defence, led by MVP rookie Tom Goodchild, kept the Knights out of the end zone. Rookie QB Sonny Hack and veteran Ben Lowes were able to put together enough offense to pull out the win. The second game against the hosts gave the Cheetahs their first taste of defeat, with a risky reverse on the last play of the game coming up just short.
Seven months of training and friendlies eventually brought the beginning of the season with a tournament at the University of Reading hosted by the Berkshire Renegades. The first game saw the Cheetahs matched up with the Cobham Cougars, last year’s National Champions. Unfortunately, even though the Hertfordshire defence slowed the potent Cougar attack, the Cobham defence proved too much for the young Cheetah offense, leading to a 10-19 loss. Not the way the Cheetahs wanted to start the season. The next game, against the Bedford Blackhawks, changed things. The offense started off fast, with Andrew Higginson taking the ball the length of the field on the first play. They never let up, pounding the ball with strong running from Running Backs veteran Alex Cameron and young rookie phenom Olly Murat. A strong defensive showing paved the way to a convincing 48-12 victory. The last game against the hosts started off in the same vein; pounding the ball and short sharp passes from QB Sonny Hack, with interceptions by Mark Craciun and Filip Bogucki leading to a sizable half-time lead. However, it wasn’t to be. The Berkshire coaches made some smart adjustments, slowing the Cheetah attack while managing a few scores of their own. Sonny Hack drove the Cheetahs down to retake the lead with just seconds to go, but a deep ball to an open Berkshire receiver broke the Cheetah hearts, with the final whistle showing the hosts up by two, 35-37. While the Cheetahs were now sixth in the nation on offense, they start the year 1-2.
A bye week during exam season allows the team to reflect on the tournament outcome, correcting mistakes and polishing successes. Important work, as the next tournament was to be at the home of the powerful Cobham Cougars, who swept their second tournament and were standing tall at 6-0. However, the first Cheetah game was a rematch against the Bedford squad, but this time the outcome was a lot closer, with a narrow victory 34-22. The victory was costly, however, with veteran RB Alex Cameron going down to a season-ending hip injury. The second game was against the previously unseen Buckinghamshire Wolves, who fielded a small but talented squad. They pushed the Cheetahs, but we remained on the winning side, with a closely fought 30-26 victory. The last game was a rematch against Cobham. We lost 16-31, but the game was a lot closer than the final score indicates – the game was even up until the last few minutes. The Cheetahs were now even at 3-3.
The heat of the summer set in. Our third tournament was to be a return to Reading, as the host Buckinghamshire Wolves weren’t able to secure their home venue. The first game was against Cobham. Another close battle – but this was different. We were able to stop their offense and a brilliant throw from Sonny to Seth secured a critical first down as the game was ending – the Cheetahs beat last year’s National Champions, 21-18. Critical TD conversions made the difference – some the Offense was great at all year. The middle game of the day was a 1-0 walkover as the host Bucks team suffered in the heat and unfortunately weren’t able to field a whole squad. That left the last game – a rematch of the heart-breaking loss in the season opener against Berkshire. This time, the Cheetahs’ dedication to cardio work shone through, with big backs Kamil Durak and Olly Murat charging over a worn-out Renegades side that just couldn’t keep up in the heat. We took the game 27-12 and won the day, going 3-0 on the road for the first time. The Cheetahs were now 6-3, with a playoff spot almost guaranteed.
Our last tournament was at home – finally. A chance to show off our skills to a home crowd, with many members of the Senior and Junior programmes on hand to cheer for the young lads. All that was needed for a spot in the playoffs was a single victory or a Berkshire loss. The day opened against familiar foe Bedford. Knowing the first ever trip to the playoffs was a single victory away, the Cheetahs held nothing back, cruising to a 40-12 victory. Big interceptions from Filip Bogucki and a pick-six from Tom Goodchild, combined with solid offense propelled us into the postseason. The second game was against the Bucks squad – who were out for revenge. They played the Cheetah squad hard and able to get the best of us, 32-22. The game featured stand out performances by Wide Receiver Charlie Barnett, who pulled in two deep TDs and Linebacker Mark Craciun, who had a pick and showed brilliant tackling form. The last opponent, Berkshire, wasn’t able to field a team, so they had to forfeit. The Cheetahs ended the day 2-1 and the season 8-4! By finishing second in the division, we were headed to the National Plate finals, where our great record put us as the number three seed (of eight). We had high hopes.
Derby University’s excellent facilities served as the stage for the first ever National appearance by a Cheetah Youth team. The first match was against the number six seed, the Lincolnshire Bombers. Unfortunately, the school holidays took a big bite out of the Cheetah squad – and it showed. The defence was stout, allowing only two touchdowns. A smaller squad and some nervous hands meant that the offense, which was so strong through the year, couldn’t get anything going – managing only a single Olly Murat score in a 6-12 defeat. The second game was against the number five seed – the Kent Exiles Outlaws. A similar story – the defence was strong (especially MVP rookie Ollie Haley), allowing just three scores, but the offense was once more stymied – managing just a single tally from receiver Andrew Higginson for a 6-18 defeat. Despite the poor results, the Cheetahs played hard and still were up for a third game against the Swindon Storm. The offense finally started to fire on all cylinders and were able to put up some big plays from the start, scoring 34 points. However, the defence, who had been so stellar all day, were tired out, allowing the Storm to score 34 points of their own (on the last play!), leading to a draw. The lads ended up joint seventh, or 15th nationally. A promising day ended in disappointment.
As the dust settled on the season, one thing was clear – the Cheetah Youth team made tremendous strides, maturing not only as players but as young men. The incredible way they dealt with setbacks proved to all what great lads they all were. Time marches on and over half of the players will be moving up to the Cheetah Junior team and the 9 on 9 format, hopefully adding to that squad’s success and pushing them to the National Championship that just eluded them this season. The players that are staying for 2019 are strong themselves – with an almost intact offense returning. Rookie days loom on the horizon – the coaches are keen for new players to build on this year’s success and push us further, with an eye to win the division and make it back to the playoffs – but this time, ending as Champions.