On Sunday 28 April, three weeks sooner than expected, the Hertfordshire Cheetahs Junior team kick-off their regular season against local rivals, the Thames Valley Tigers (@ Royal Holloway Sports Centre, 2:45pm KO). Before kick-off, the Juniors fourth-year Head Coach Alex Halms previewed his team’s upcoming campaign.
“2018 was, in so many ways, a historic year for our Junior programme. We won five of our six regular season games, and led the eventual National Champion London Blitz for the majority of our regular season match-up. However, the high of reaching the playoffs was tempered by the poor performances in both the Southern Title Game, and in the Plate Final. To some extent, 2019 has been ‘back to the drawing board’.
There has been some major upheaval in terms of coaching and playing staff, with some key pieces graduating or moving on to pastures new. Defensive Coordinator Sam Oswald has moved to Australia, Game Day Manager and Special Teams Assistant Jamie Martin now coordinates the Brighton Scorpions defense, and positional coaches Sam Troth, Francois Earp and Kit Varney departed to invest in their final season’s with the Hertfordshire Hurricanes. On the field Patryk Cwiertnia, Johanne Alvaro Remigio, James Abegglen and Billy Ray moved on to play for our Senior squad, whilst Byron Kealy relocated to Bristol before his move to an Orlando prep school later this year.
However, the departures have, by all accounts, been heavily outweighed by the inbound talent. Coach Fab Hayward has stepped up to coordinate the Juniors defense, whilst Coach Don MacIntyre has brought a new lease of life the Offensive Line. Coach Jonty Tatchell has been retained full-time to aid Coach Don, with Coaches Andy Dickins and Ian Wilson providing support to the DL and QBs respectively. Coach Oscar Terry and James Abegglen (rebranded as Coach Abegglen) have supplemented the defensive side of the ball, with the Juniors once again boasting a full roster of positional coaches and coordinators.
Recruitment has, once again, reached record levels. The success of the Cheetahs Youth team has played no small part, with 14 graduates on the roster heading into ‘Opening Weekend’. The squad is further boosted by 7 former Bucks Wolves Youth and Flag players, together with 7 true rookies. The remainder (and indeed the vast majority) of the squad, however, are returning to the Junior team following last season’s epic run to the playoffs. With the roster bulging at the seams, competition for places is rife, and the quality of practice, film and play has never, truly, been higher.
The Juniors have been in training since October 2018, with padded practice from January 2019. In March this year, 42 Cheetahs attended a residential training camp at the Academy St Albans, a weekend which ended with a pre-season scrimmage away to the Nottingham Caesars. A further pre-season scrimmage against the Cobham Cougars followed, and the Cheetahs seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
Ultimately, the successes of 2018 have reset the parameters of what is possible, and indeed what can be deemed “success”, in 2019. However, given the nature of Junior football, a solid recruitment drive, a committed core of players and some good fortune can often turn also-rans into legitimate contenders. Week to week, game to game, nothing can be assumed. Each of Thames Valley, Cobham, Kent, Cambridge, Solent and, of course, Blitz, look certain to provide stern tests for the Cheetahs Juniors, especially if they want to replicate last year’s playoff run.
Key to that success will be a renewed commitment to fundamental football and simplicity. For large patches of 2018, the Cheetahs offense struggled to keep pace with our flying defense, which came to the forefront in the playoffs. Second-year QB Liam MacGovern, together with Bucks Wolves transfer Louis Groom and Youth graduate Indy Wood, will be protected by a reinvigorated Offensive Line, where re-focussed coaching has finally produced depth and consistency at a position so often flawed in Junior football. Led by Center Benjamin Smythe and OT Callum Cocks (the latter looking to translate a second season of football into an NCCA scholarship), the OL will also look to carve a path for the bevvy of Running Back talent, with five legitimate starters vying for reps. Out wide, GB’s Jack Stodel and Dede Okoro will join last season’s OPOY Josh Miller-Hall, receiving leader Ben Wilson, and rookie sensations James Purr and Jay Stewart-Sinclair, together with a host of talented rookies and returners.
On the other side of the ball, Coach Hayward has built upon and revamped Coach Oswald‘s scheme for 2019. With the majority of Cheetah youth graduates being defensively-inclined, the defense has a young and energetic feel – embodied by rookie LB Filip Bogucki and rookie Safety Tom Goodchild. CB Tom MacIntrye, LB Ryan Frost, Safety Jack Preece, CB Lucas Cornwall, Safety Dylan Baylis, DT Marcin Kurek and DL Ollie Mulcahy all return to bring veteran leadership to a unit which conceded in just two regular season games a year ago. As with any U19 defense, fast aggressive play at the line of scrimmage and good fundamental tackling will be key to making the Cheetahs’ D a force to be reckoned with in 2019.
Despite a phenomenal kicking game in 2018, the Cheetahs Special Teams failed to register a return TD in 2018, something Special Teams Coordinator Norman Bradford is intent on rectifying in 2019. With fresh-blood in the return game, and a heavy focus on game-reps in pre-season, the Cheetahs are hoping that their work on Special Teams translates into results in the coming season.
All in all, the stakes are raised, expectations are heightened and the Cheetahs’ opponents are a year wiser and more prepared. Success, ultimately, will be determined only by what those in yellow and black can produce on Sundays.
However, the Coaches truly believe that this Cheetah family has all the pieces to repeat and transcend 2018’s success. With momentum balancing expectation, talent building upon talent, and iron sharpening iron – 2019 looks, by all accounts, to be a great season – starting Sunday”.
You can keep up to date with the game via ScoreStream as the Cheetahs Junior side look to get the season off to a fast start.