Joe Scianna will sit in the stands for Sycamore football home games and instantly recognize the Spartans’ offensive plays.
Over the past three years, Scianna, the president of the Sycamore Youth Football League, has been instrumental in developing a direct connection between the SYFL and Sycamore High football, including the implementation of the Spartans’ playbook.
On Friday nights, Scianna often will sit with his league’s youth football players and he immediately can notice the tangible progress the league has made since it was created in 2005.
“The most fun thing I can do is when we go to the games and we have a huge turnout of our kids who want to go see the high school games,” Scianna said. “The Sycamore offense runs a play and one of the kids turns around and they say ‘That’s 32-belly.’”
The SYFL is a full-fledged feeder program for Sycamore football and it all started with a group of parents whose kids now are integral parts of this year’s Sycamore team, undefeated at 12-0 and in the midst of the best season in school history.
• • •
About 10 years ago, a group of neighborhood dads wanted to get their kids into youth football. Sycamore didn’t offer a specific youth league only for Sycamore athletes, so the four kids – Brett Weaver, Nick Feuerbach, Devin Mottet and Jake Winters – played with Genoa as part of the Elgin league as third-graders.
After one season, the parents decided to create their own teams in Sycamore.
“We wanted to build a program, not just a winning fourth-grade football team,” Jim Winters said. “We wanted this to make a good foundation for kids to have in Sycamore.”
Starting with nothing, the group held meetings at their houses to help develop a plan to build the organization, acquire equipment and create a program. Winters said 93 kids signed up for the first season in 2005, forming four teams.
Around the same time the SYFL was being created, Joe Ryan became the coach at Sycamore, moving from Princeton before the 2004 high school season. Immediately the newly formed SYFL wanted Ryan’s input.
“We brought him in and we asked what he wanted to see accomplished and what his goals were,” Todd Weaver said. “He’s always shown his involvement in it and interest in it. It builds a strong program.”
The early SYFL teams, which included the original four boys, had immediate success, even winning the “Battle in Rocky Top,” a 2007 national tournament held in Tennessee.
Overall, 26 juniors and seniors on the current Sycamore roster played in the SYFL, more than half of whom are starters. That group has helped the Spartans to a 26-8 record over the past three years, the most wins over a three-year span in school history, and has Sycamore on the verge of a state championship appearance.
• • •
Three years ago, Scianna and Ryan started the lengthy process of getting Sycamore’s playbook into the hands of the SYFL coaches. The two spent hours going over the plays in order to educate Scianna on what Ryan had been doing at the high-school level.
The plays are filtered down to make them easier for elementary schoolers. As Scianna points out “7- to 8-year-olds can’t run what Mottet is running at the high school level right now.”
“Joe put in a lot of time in those first couple years guiding us into what he saw we could offer and what we could do,” Scianna said. “Each year we’ve been able to add more and more to what we’re doing to become more and more in continuity with the high school.”
To date, Ryan is still a General Board Member on the SYFL Board of Directors and often attends SYFL practices.
“As long as they’re teaching fundamentals and keeping kids out for football that’s the number one thing,” Ryan said. “We don’t want to lose kids along the way because of things we’re doing early on.”
Most of the original coaches no longer are involved in the SYFL, but the league continues to thrive. This year, Scianna said, there are 107 kids registered. Former Sycamore players such as John Beaudoin and Drake Stenberg have even returned to volunteer as coaches.
As youth leagues and feeder programs continue to grow in importance for all high school sports teams, the SYFL’s founders are hopeful the initial positive results continue.
“Where they’re at right now is just beyond most of our dreams of where it could be, not only as football players, but as young men,” Winters said. “We’d like to think that SYFL 8-10 years ago was a small part of their success.”