January 15, 2021 • Athletic AdministrationCoachingFootball

Tapping into Youth Football to Sustain Your Future

Years of struggling seasons led to a dwindling player base at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Football in the resort community was sinking fast and the Dolphins’ athletic department was considering mooring the program for good back at the turn of the century.

If things did not change quickly, D-Y’s lights would be turned off on Friday nights. To save the program, incoming football coach Paul Funk turned to Saturday and Sunday mornings and Dennis-Yarmouth Youth Football.

youth football
Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

“The only way that we thought that we’d be able to change the culture was to get involved with youth football,” Funk said. “We moved the youth practices to the high school field and created an atmosphere where the youth kids looked up to the high school kids.”

Funk, along with longtime assistant coach and Youth Football president Joe Jamiel, turned Dennis-Yarmouth football into a machine that has been producing quality football players for two decades. Dennis-Yarmouth played as a junior varsity program under Funk for his first two years, in 2000 and 2001, before returning to the varsity level. The Dolphins have not had a losing season since that time, producing two state championships – in 2011 and 2017 – along with numerous trips to the state playoffs, with a number of other deep runs in the postseason. Over a dozen Dolphins earned All-Scholastic recognition at the state level for their play, and more than that have gone on to play in college.

“We had to find good people and get them to buy-in,” Funk said. “Most of all, you have to be willing to do the work. We’d be coaching high school practice from 2:30 PM to 5 PM, and then the youth would come in and we’d stay on the field until at least 7 PM, every day. Our high school coaches were out there with the youth coaches, showing the kids the fundamentals, getting them acclimated to how we do things, and that continued all the way up. You have to check your ego at the door.”

Over the years the Dolphins were able to develop a plug-and-play program. Kids coming up as Junior Dolphins knew the systems that they’d be running when they got to high school. Funk and Jamiel invited the youth coaches to film breakdown on Saturday mornings, and in turn, the youth coaches were able to take the nuggets of knowledge that they’d acquire from those sessions and put them into practice with their teams. The team concept flourished as everyone in green and white felt ownership of the wins that the Dolphins were accruing at every level of the program.

“We took a lot of pride in the fact that we could take a pee-wee or a midget player and insert them into our high school offense,” Funk said. “The peewee and midget quarterbacks were in our base offense already and we knew that as they came up that they’d be a step ahead.”

In Iowa, at Dallas Center-Grimes High School, Steve Heitland is hoping to build a similar machine through a revamping of the youth football program for the communities of Norwalk, Johnston, Dallas Center-Grimes, and Adel-De Soto-Minburn.

Heitland’s high school program has had its share of successes over the years and is typically a very competitive one in the AAA Division. His inspiration to see change at the youth level had more to do with keeping the game alive than it did bolstering his high school program, but in the long run that will probably be a big benefit.

Watching his seven-year-old play baseball he came to realize that most other sports modify their games for younger kids and that they advance on a path that ends with playing at full speed on a regulation-sized field. In baseball, the bases were closer together for the smaller kids, the coaches pitched in some instances. It was all set up so that the young players enjoyed themselves, and had success.

He realized that wasn’t the case. The youngest players were put in full pads and were playing the game like the big boys. Something seemed off about that to Heitland.

“In football, in most communities, we found that you were dumped into the big game right away,” he said. “That didn’t seem right…there needed to be a pathway to progression.”

The Iowa Developmental Youth Football League (IDYFL) changed things up so that there would be that ladder for youth players to climb. Heitland said that the IDYFL now has children in grades K-2 playing recreational flag games as an introduction to the game, where fun is the only real goal. In third grade, they move to eight-man flag games, and the fundamentals of blocking are added. In fourth grade, they continue to play the same way, but in full pads, which allows for blocking to increase in intensity. Tackling is introduced in practice at that level, but games are still flag-based. By the fifth grade, they play eight-on-eight full tackle games. In sixth grade, they play full 11-on-11 games on a full-sized field.

“By the time that the young players reach the eighth grade he’s been playing live tackle in a game and they have been working on it for three years. They’ve learned how to block correctly, how to hit correctly and safely,” Heitland said.

Rethinking how youth football is handled in the IDYFL had some push-back in the beginning, but the league is starting to truly flourish. Heitland said that, at first, some community members did not want to see “the way we’ve always done things” change.

“Tradition can be the killer to innovation,” Heitland said with a laugh.

In 2017, under the old system, the IDYFL had 103 registered football players. In 2018, the first year under the new system, the number grew to 126 and then to 133 in 2019. For the 2020 season, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the league had 151 registered players, with a very healthy retention rate.

Heitland is excited because some of the players that began the new system in 2018 are now about to reach the high school ranks. Not all of the players will be with him at Dallas-Center Grimes, but many of them will be making their way into his program.

“I put a high value on their experience at the lower levels. If they’re having fun there, then they’re going to keep coming back,” he said.

Rich Maclone is the Sports Editor for Enterprise Publishing on Cape Cod, and the author of the novel “Season On The Brink.”