A combined CYO football team from Kansas and Missouri makes an improbable championship run
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
PRAIRIE VILLAGE – They were starting out their season in a hole.
And it promised to go downhill from there.
Last year, the seventh-grade CYO football teams of St. Ann School in Prairie Village and St. Elizabeth, just across State Line in Kansas City, Mo., took a beating. Both finished up with unspectacular records.
When the season started this year, neither school could come up with the requisite 15 players needed to even field a team.
That’s when the CYO folks got creative, and suggested the two combine to form one interstate team.
For the sake of the 11 boys from St. Ann, and the 12 from St. Elizabeth, who really wanted to play, the coaches agreed to give it a try.
The schedule was divided between the two states: Players wore green jerseys for the Missouri games and blue for the Kansas games.
Other teams in the league had no objections. After all, this was a combination of two losing teams.
How competitive could it be?
In a lot of sports situations, the biggest egos involved aren’t those of the players, but those of the coaches.
Not so with these guys.
Running back Jake Fetters from St. Elizabeth credits the coaching staff for setting — from the very start — an example of unselfish team spirit.
“They took time out of their own schedule to come and coach us,” he said. “They just sacrificed their time to help us.”
Out of seven coaches, assistant coach Scott Schultz from St. Ann was the only one who had a son on the team.
“All my staff is ex-college football players,” said head coach Jason Flood of St. Elizabeth. “They just love the game and want to pass it on to the young men.”
“That’s really not only a love of the game, but a commitment to young people,” added Cindy Craig, a St. Elizabeth parishioner whose son, Andrew, was on the team.
“And the coaches set that tone of ‘we are one,’” she said. “We may not go to the same school, but we are a team.”
It was an example the players sorely needed at first.
“I wasn’t totally excited because I wanted to have our own team and just stay with my friends,” said St. Ann quarterback John Schultz. “And I knew it would be kind of awkward meeting a whole bunch of new guys.”
“We wanted to show them how hard-hitting a football team we were,” countered Jake. “But eventually, we got to know them better and found out we were actually a pretty good team together.”
The first few practices were challenging. Many boys had to relinquish their former positions and learn a new one in the short time before official play began.
That’s where the boys’ Catholic education came in handy.
The players followed their coaches’ suggestions unselfishly, said John, because they’d learned in school to treat others as they would want to be treated.
“So we knew how to accept each other,” he said.
“It’s great what our Catholic schools have instilled in these young men,” said Flood, “because, when we came together, they were very unselfish.”
“It took about two or three practices,” admitted Schultz, but then “they really came together as a team.”
The unified spirit paid off.
Not only did the combined team win. It kept on winning.
By the end of the season, St. Ann/St. Elizabeth was playing for the championship.
In the final game against Prince of Peace School from Olathe, St. Ann/St. Elizabeth was leading 14-12 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Then the unthinkable happened.
John suffered a concussion and had to be taken out of the game.
“It was a kick return,” he said. “I returned the ball and I was running and two guys hit me — a bad hit.”
“I was on the sideline and I saw what happened,” recalled his father. “I was sprinting out to the field before he hit the ground. I knew it was a pretty hard hit.”
The team waited tensely as doctors came from the stands to check on John.
After 10 minutes, the cart was brought out to take him off the field.
“The crowd was applauding,” recalled Schultz. “And I told John, ‘You need to let them know you’re OK; give them a thumbs up or something.’
“And he raised his hand up, and the crowd just erupted. It was very emotional.”
Schultz went with his son to Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“I was told after we left that the team was extremely emotional,” he said.
But emotion is a funny business on the football field.
Schultz heard later that his son’s injury left the young team “very motivated to work as hard as they could to get the win,” he said.
Derek Lester had played the quarterback position for St. Elizabeth’s team the previous season. But he hadn’t thrown a pass in a game since.
“He ended up having to quarterback in the championship game,” said Craig. “And he hadn’t quarterbacked the whole season.”
Like the boys had all season, however, Derek rose to the occasion.
The team managed to hold on for the win.
Still, said Jake, it was no longer just about winning. It was also about the teammate he had known only a few short weeks.
“We won it for John,” said Jake simply.
“Our chants were for him when it was over,” he added.
It was that kind of spirit that was expressed by all the boys at a recent St. Elizabeth School assembly when their St. Ann teammates visited to present the championship trophy.
“Each one of the eighth-grade St. Elizabeth boys got up and said a little bit about what the season meant,” said Schultz. “And then we had one young man get up and speak on behalf of St. Ann.”
“It wasn’t about just winning the championship,” said Flood. “It was what they gained as individuals.”
“That’s what’s cool about it,” he continued.
“This wasn’t about football this year. It was about coming together, giving and taking. It was about being there for one another and that unity.”
When the assembly ended, the teammates had a hard time parting.
“They all got choked up,” said Craig. “The St. Ann kids didn’t want to leave.”
The team coaches, who had more experience parting with friends, told the boys, “It isn’t goodbye.
“It’s ‘So long.’”
“Eight weeks and these young men have memories and friends for a lifetime,” said Flood after the assembly. “As a coach, it was just one of those special years you have.”