OAKLEAF — A local nonprofit sports association is home to one of the longest-tenured youth football and cheer programs: Pop Warner.
Pop Warner isn’t anything new. It’s been around for years and years and it’s often the starting point for children interested in football and cheerleading. Oakleaf is now home to Clay County’s newest 501(C)(3) youth program and in just a few months, the program will begin its inaugural year. It hopes to teach participants not only how to play football and cheer, but the fundamentals of good sportsmanship as well.
“Our primary mission is youth development by emphasizing discipline, fundamentals and sportsmanship in the field of play, in addition to scholastic achievement,” Oakleaf Youth Sports president Tony Hart said. “This is our inaugural season and we are excited.”
Hart said OYS recognizes that other Oakleaf-based sports associations already exist but said those other programs are members of an independent conference with participants that are only eligible for play in the North Florida region. Hart said OYS provides teams with the opportunity to expand beyond this region through a playoff system.
This playoff system leads all the way to the national championship at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports. Hart said that OYS is just shy of 100 participants, having just reached 92 registrations. They hope to hit 100 before the season begins.
“Participants range from ages 5 to 14 and are required to be a resident with a zip code of either 32065 or 32073, or they can be a 32068 resident attending school at a 32065 or 32073 location,” Hart said. “Our volunteers range from active and retired military, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, state employees and number of small business owners.”
Hart said all volunteers have been screened through Florida Department of Law Enforcement Level 1 Background checks and are USA Football Head-Ups certified. They must renew that certification every year they plan to participate as volunteers as well.
It’s a unique year to begin a sports association like this, Hart said, pointing out that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all registration had to take place online. She said that despite the initial challenge, it has allowed OYS to use its website as a one-stop shop for all things football and cheer related for the program. After Gov. Ron DeSantis elevated Florida to Phase Two, OYS held its first community day on June 6.
“Our guests included Associate Pastor Josh Evans of Trinity Baptist, Adriel Rocha from the Jacksonville Jaguars Public Affairs Office, Frank Garis and Merlin Smith, Oakleaf High and Oakleaf Junior High football coaches respectively, and more,” Hart said. “In addition to that, we had food trucks, prizes, a live DJ and a bounce house. It was a success, and all were enthused about our uniform reveal.”
As for getting around the coronavirus, Hart said conditioning was held in a modified circuit training forum with no player contact and limited contact with equipment. Groups are held to 12 or less and stressed to spread out and socially distance while resting or under instruction. The players are enjoying themselves despite these regulations, according to Hart.
“The players are really enjoying themselves and the situation demands the coaches to be creative with the workouts,” Hart said. “We await the final word from the conference on game play, we continue to prepare for whatever safety rules are implemented.”
For anyone interested in joining OYS during its inaugural year, Hart said to check out the OakleafYouthSports Facebook page. You’ll find pictures and videos from conditioning and community events there, as well as links to get involved.