The Old Bridge Cougars are the football champions of 2018 Eastern Region Pop Warner.
Old Bridge claimed the title when it defeated Hillsborough, 32-13, at Elizabeth High School’s Williams Field on Nov. 24.
Old Bridge’s 11-13 year old team’s title run completed an impressive turnaround. The Cougars’ 2017 11-13 year old team went 0-8. But the 2018 Cougars finished 6-2 and won two trophies.
Old Bridge also won the Central New Jersey Division 3 conference title on Oct. 27, when it beat South River, 44-7, at Franklin Park in Franklin Township.
“The difference is, the players grew, got bigger, faster and stronger over the offseason. It just clicked,” said Omar Maldonado, the president of the Old Bridge Cougars. “Maturity was big. Very big.”
“We got the kids believing. A lot of it was a confidence thing. Building their confidence and learning how to play football the right way,” said Old Bridge coach Jeff Hemhauser. “We got off to a quick start, which gave the kids the belief that they could play with these teams. Then it snowballed after that. Once we learned how to play the right way, the rest took care of itself.”
The Cougars were not able to attend the Pop Warner national championship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. They had 18 players in 2018, and only 14 were able to make the trip to Disney.
Pop Warner rules mandate that a team must have 16 players to participate in a game. So, Old Bridge only had two more than the limit for the entire fall. They overcame it with talent, energy and versatility.
Hemhauser described the team’s offense as “borderline unstoppable.” Running back Joel Marelis was the biggest reason for that. He scored 22 touchdowns.
“A lot of times we got him the ball in space,” Hemhauser said. “And he’s the best athlete I have ever coached in my 15 year career.”
Hemhauser rotated through eight offensive linemen, Mike Valvo, Julius Nevarez, Isaiah Marelis, Nico Tricoles, Emmanuel Wheagar, Jason Smith, Kenneth Deglman and Deon Jackson, on a regular basis. They all opened holes for Marelis.
Old Bridge’s offense was a Wing-T, featuring a jet sweep motion and receivers running in motion. The system was designed to make the defense respect horizontal and vertical action–and it worked because the Cougars had speed and strength.
Quarterback Ryan Bielenda tied everything together like a point guard, spreading the ball to Marelis and a group of talented receivers like Tavian Maldonado and Chris Bracco.
“Ryan was a very smart kid, great arm, great leader and tough,” Hemhauser said.
On defense, Old Bridge played an aggressive 3-5-3 stack, with three down linemen, five linebackers and three defensive backs. The defensive backs played zone and the front eight attacked the backfield.
The same linemen excelled on defense, too. Linebackers Marelis and Kevin Diaz cleaned up behind the line. Marelis led the Cougars in tackles.
Old Bridge had great players, schemes and, most importantly, chemistry.
“I would be lying if I said I saw this coming. The first month was about learning how to play. Once they were able to do that, we hit the ground running,” Hemhauser said. “We shocked the league. That was the most satisfying thing.”
The Cougars won’t surprise anybody in 2019. Hemhauser had only seven 13 year olds in 2018, so the other 11 Cougars will be eligible to return.
It should be another successful year.
“We should return a lot of kids,” Hemhauser said. “The kids play hard, physical and tough. We’ll hang in there.”