The Vineland Bandits midget football team will compete on a national stage next week after seizing a regional title Saturday.
The Bandits, the 7-and-under squad of the Vineland Midget Football League, defeated Paulsboro 27-6 in the Chesapeake Region title game, punching their ticket to compete in the National Youth Championship in Canton, Ohio, from Dec. 14-17.
The Millville Midget Football League’s sophomore team (10-and-under) also earned a trip to Canton after winning its regional championship game Sunday.
The national tournament, sponsored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will feature the top youth teams across two divisions and eight age groups from 10 different regions around the country.
The Bandits will compete in an 11-team bracket starting on Dec. 15.
The final of the national tournament will take place at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“I feel we have a legitimate shot at the championship,” VMFL president Chris Wilson said. “The competition will be more fierce at the national level, but we have the ability to go against the top teams.”
The Bandits were a perfect 10-0 in regular- season play and won the American Conference Midget Football Tri-County League championship. Their defense allowed just 26 points this season and had seven shutouts.
Defensive end Jayden Robinson, middle linebacker Jayden Pender, cornerback Laron Thomas and nose tackle Tommy Profit are a select few who led the stout defense this season.
“It’s a great experience going undefeated,” Bandits head coach Alphonzo Brown said. “We should do great (in the national tournament). We prepare hard and work hard, possibly the biggest and strongest out of the 5-to-7-year-old group.”
Antonio Murray Cruz led Vineland with more than 40 touchdowns on the season and played a significant role in the regional win over Paulsboro, rushing for 260 yards with three touchdowns.
The 7-year-old running back is known as “The Squirrel” among teammates and coaches.
“Have you ever see anyone catch a squirrel with just their hands?” Brown asked. “He is an outstanding player and very fast. He plays hard and gives great effort every game.”
Andre Gross also had a rushing touchdown in Saturday’s victory.
NFL general manager Ray Farmer and national collegiate scout Gary Howard led a group of 50-plus regional scouts from across the country who watched and evaluated top teams from fourth to eighth grade this season.
Shore Regional scout director Jahmil Shakur from Future Legends Football Academy in Pleasantville assists in discovering teams such as Vineland.
The Bandits were invited in October to compete in the national tournament with the final round being broadcasted on national television, an added incentive for the young team to reach the title game.
“The kids are very excited, and they really want to win to be on TV,” Brown said. “They are living in the moment and are enjoying every minute of it. It’s amazing, and it’s a blast to coach them.”
Note: Shakur said there are opportunities for other youth football teams to participate in the tournament next year. Teams can contact him through Facebook at Jahmil Legends Shakur or by calling 609-453-7105.