By Brenda Maguire
NEW BRITAIN — This fall 256 football players and cheerleaders stepped onto the field in Jr. Canes uniforms. For the majority of them, it was the first time they ever participated in the sport.
“Win or lose, these kids are still coming off the field with a smile on their face,” said Lisandra Samuels, treasurer of New Britain Youth Football and Cheerleading.
Alex Torres, president of the Jr. Canes, said a primary reason the program was launched in July was to cater more to children on the east side of the city who had difficulty in years past finding transportation to make Police Athletic League games on the other side of town.
New Britain Youth Football and Cheerleading is focused on not just creating athletes, but on molding student-athletes and preparing children for high school and college, organizers say.
“You’re going to be an all-around student and an all-around athlete,” Samuels said.
Laura Woodie, who runs the education-based programs for the teams, added, “Attitude is just as important as skill level.”
The league requires football players and cheerleaders to maintain a 2.5-grade point average, which is the NCAA requirement for student-athletes.
Jr. Canes participate in community service programs, including performing a play about bullying at the Hole in the Wall theater in July and hosting a Mother’s Day Brunch at the Marian Heights assisted-living center last May.
The Jr. Canes have developed a relationship with New Britain High School and many of its players volunteer to help coach.
“One of the biggest things we’re trying to do is partner with New Britain High School and become a feeder system with them,” Torres said.
Jr. Canes players have also taken trips to Central Connecticut State University to meet with college athletes to learn about the application and recruitment process.
In the inaugural season, Jr. Canes teams have been competitive, organizers say. In fact, the fifth-grade team finished its regular season last weekend undefeated.
“There are some teams still trying to mesh because the players didn’t play last year,” Torres said. “There is a learning curve.”
The Jr. Canes were not sponsored by the city this year and it cost $60,000 to start the league between equipment expenses and paying to use the fields.
“It’s important for us to continue getting money from our sponsors,” Torres said.
Almost every parent volunteers in some way, whether it’s by providing transportation or coaching.
The football program has one flag football team for kindergarten and first-graders. There are five other grade-based teams: second and third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh and eighth grade.
For cheerleading there are four squads: kindergarten and first grade; second and third grade; fourth, fifth and sixth grade; and seventh and eighth grade.
Cheerleaders perform throughout the football season and their first competition will be held on Oct. 22 at Crosby High School in Waterbury.
The Jr. Canes are part of the Mid Connecticut Football and Cheer Conference. They play against nine teams in the state.
The elementary-school-level teams play at Smith Elementary School on Rutherford Street and the middle-school-level teams play at Roosevelt Middle School on Goodwin Street. All games are played at Chesley Park on Wildwood Avenue.
Registration for next season will open during the first week of March.
For more information on the Jr. Canes and registration visitwww.ihigh.com/nbjrhurricanes/index.html