Linwood Panthers Capture First Varsity Football Title in 50 Years
It took 50 years, but the Linwood Panthers' varsity football team are champions once again.
The smallest team in the league to field a team, won the Jersey Shore Youth Football League's biggest prize and completed its first-ever undefeated season with a 36-12 win over the Hammonton Hawks.
It's the first time in 50 years that the Panthers captured the league's top crown, the last time coming in 1972 when they combined with Brigantine.
The championship comes five years after the Panthers seriously considered folding the football program when they had only two teams (Taxi and PeeWee) with no JV and Varsity, and just 11 kids on Taxi and 13 kids on PeeWee.
Each team only won one game.
"We seriously considered it (folding the program)," said John Franchini, the President of the Linwood Panthers.
"Before we just quit, we got together a group of committed families, and we went all in to rebuild the program."
In the Championship game against a solid Hammonton team, Linwood's quarterback Johnny Franchini hit receiver Joey Eyde for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Hammonton answered with a touchdown by Ethan Peterson, but the Panthers has an immediate answer, as Eyde took the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, putting Linwood up 14-6.
The Linwood defense made their presence felt on the next two Hammonton possessions, as Panther linebackers, Chase Hoag and Dylan Grant, along with defensive end Fin Fiore forced Hammonton fumbles, which were recovered by Fiore and Dante Franchini.
The Linwood offense took advantage of the Hammonton turnovers, converting them into more points with a 10 yard run by Eyde and a 50-yard dash by Franchini, putting Linwood up 28-6.
Those runs were made possible by the exceptional blocking of Will Hickman, Trevor Dill, Jasper Colville, Reese Gurwicz, TJ Santarpio, Nigel Hucey, Damon Herzchel, and Joey Niceta.
Hammonton answered with a long scoring drive, culminated by another Peterson touchdown on the last play of the first half, cutting the Linwood lead to 28-12.
But the Linwood defense set the done to open the second half, stopping the Hammonton offense on their opening possession, setting up a Franchini then connected with Mykai Campbell on a 35-yard touchdown pass to put the game out of reach, giving Linwood the ACJFL title.
"We weren't thinking about championships or even playoffs, we were thinking about survival," Franchini admitted.
Franchini was quick to praise the Linwood community with the program's quick turnaround.
"Our community - 'Panther Nation' as we call it - did this," Franchini stated.
"Our Mayor Darrin Mattick, and our city leaders, Eric Ford, Matt Levinson, and Tim Donovan, and city council are supportive, we have a great cheer coordinator and our cheerleaders are simply amazing."
"They come rain or shine and bring an energy that we feed off of. We have a great football coordinator and some amazing coaches who give of their time, many of whom do not have a child on the team. Our parents, volunteers, and alumni bring the passion."
The Varsity team is made up of the following players: