Looking to build on last year’s 8-4 season with at least a return trip to the playoffs – hopefully this time to the National Championship. A core group of returners (most of last year’s powerful offense) and a strong core of new rookies prepped through the late autumn and winter under the tutelage of their second year Head Coach and his experienced assistants. A change in division from last season sees the young Cheetahs facing new opponents from across the south – reaching as far as Poole, Southampton and Swindon.
It is at Swindon where the season would start on a cool and blustery April day. Going into the day with a record of 1-0 (due to the unfortunate withdrawal of scheduled opponent Farnham Knights), the first Cheetah opponent was the host Swindon Storm. The Cheetahs were hoping for revenge from last year’s playoff tie against the Storm. The Cheetah defense was stout from the get-go, but things started off slowly for the Cheetah offense as some early nerves were evident. A fumble (luckily recovered!) on a play that looked like it was going for a long TD meant the ball was quickly given to the host after a turnover on downs. The hosts took over and were able to move the ball and quickly took a 6-0 lead.
The offense quickly righted the ship on the next drive, with rookie back Alex Niciou taking the handoff on the second play the distance, with the key block coming from QB Sonny Hack. The hosts were able to move the ball some again, but a brilliant defensive play from Joe Parton stopped them on 4th down near the goal line. The Cheetah offense again showed off its quick strike potential – putting the ball in the end zone just two plays later on a long run from Taylor Bloor. On the host’s next play on offense, strong pressure from veteran defensive tackle Jack Byrne forced a bad snap out of the end zone for a safety. After some back and forth play, the first half concluded with the Cheetahs up 14-6.
The second half was all Hertfordshire as they took the ball to open the half. A trick play with WR Charlie Barnett making the short pass to Hack, who then ran the last 20 yards to the end zone, running over a defender at the goal line put the Cheetahs up 20-6. A solid defense, centred around pressure from Byrne and Ivan Ginelli and strong tackling from Parton, frustrated the host offense, who couldn’t find a way into the end zone. Long, grindy drives from the offense, featuring powerful runs from Adam Headley and dancing quickness from Niciou plus a deep TD throw from Hack to Barnett put more points on the board. The final whistle blew with the score 35-6. The Offensive MVP was Alex Niciou (119 rushing yards, one TD) and the Defensive MVP was Joe Parton (5 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, 1 safety).
Up next was the only familiar foe from last year – the Berkshire Renegades. Last year, Hertfordshire took two of three from the Renegades and were looking to extend their winning ways. The second game started out much like the first – a little tentative as the teams felt each other out. The Renegades found the end zone first, but Hertfordshire took over from there. Alex Niciou rang up two more touchdowns – one on the ground after some nifty running and one through the air after a toe tap catch in the corner of the endzone on a strike from Sonny Hack. Taylor Bloor jumped high to fight off double coverage to get a deep ball in the end zone from Hack. Ewan Macdonald and Adam Headley each reined in Hack throws to add to the scoring. The Cheetah defense also got in on the scoring, with rookie Max Nissim recovering a Berkshire fumble forced by Bryn Mendes-Lewis in the end zone for a defensive touchdown. He later added a spectacular leaping interception as the game was wrapping up. This game was a complete team effort, especially on the defense. Continued strong pressure from Jack Byrne and Ivan Ginelli wreaked havoc up the middle, who struggled after their QB went down with an injury. The final score was 43-20. Offensive Co-MVP honours went to Ewan Macdonald (60 all-purpose yards, one TD and some key first downs) and Taylor Bloor (spectacular catch in the end zone and strong runs) and Defensive MVP was Max Nissim (2 tackles, 2 bat downs, 1 interception and a fumble recovered for a TD).
The Hertfordshire Cheetahs Youth are now 3-0 in the early days of the season. Their next tournament isn’t until 8 June at home, allowing for a lot of training time to get ready for the next foes as the Cheetahs try to make their way back to the playoffs.