TEWKSBURY – It's like a well-oiled machine.
Really, the Tewksbury Youth Football program is like the Energizer Bunny. The program keeps going and going, with big numbers, big improvements, dedicated coaches and volunteers and most of all, it strives on safety at all costs and teaching the kids fundamentals, sportsmanship and of course having some fun mixed in.
Rich Russo is entering his fourth year as the League's President and after last year's season got wiped out due to COVID-19, he and the rest of the Board of Directors and coaches have been chomping at the bit to get on the field to not only practice for the season opener — competing in the Central Mass League now for the second season but third year — in less than two weeks, but to show off all of the big-time changes and improvements that have been done, all for the kids of this town.
"We are extremely excited," he beamed Tuesday night taking a short break of his duties. "It's been two years in the making. The other piece to it is you can tell that the kids are also just as excited for it. You can see it not only in their ability of being out here, but also with the coaches. All of our coaches are Safety Certified, both in concussion and bullying, tackling rules and everything that goes with that so these guys have been ready to go for six weeks now."
While the coaches have taken their online courses to be certified, the Board of Directors were doing their part in making some significant upgrades.
"We bought all new (push) sleds and equipment. We also got brand new helmets for every kid — there's 140 brand new Rydell Safety Flex Helmets, state-of-the-art quality. We did it because for one it's a little bit of an image and two a (youth football) helmet has a ten-year shelf life. They have to get recertified every year so the end of the day if the helmet doesn't pass the certification, it gets thrown out. (Buying these new helmets) was a way for us just to reset everything, so we said we're going to start a whole new thing with these helmets which will promote safety, it's going to promote confidence with not only the coaching staff but with the kids. The other thing we did was buy brand new cheerleading uniforms, so those are ready to go and the girls are going to look better than ever. All of that is exciting."
In 2019, the program had a combined 466 kids between 123 tackle football players, 265 flag football players and 78 cheerleaders. Today, there's 465 total kids including 140 tackle players, 80 cheerleaders and 245 flag football players.
"Our tackle numbers are up 20 percent and to me that says alot about what this program is all about," said Russo. "We're here to promote safety, confidence for parents and as a whole you don't see tackle numbers going up in a lot of other programs and we were able to turn that around. Our flag football numbers are down but I think people are realizing that between the certification of our coaches, us moving to the Central Mass League that this is safe and we're ready to go."
The program is ready to go in every area — new uniforms, helmets and equipment, six tackle football teams, four cheerleading squads, costs are low and fundraising efforts are very high, which is incredible with the country going through the pandemic over the last 18 months.
"My big thing is investing back into the program, not just for the kids ten years from now, but for the kids who are donating now," said Russo. "The best part about the whole thing — and we do a pretty good job from an organizational standpoint — is if you look around the other programs to play youth football it's $300 or more. Here kids pay $220 if you sign up in the beginning and then $250 is our base price, so we do a good job. We get a lot of fundraising, which obviously defers some of the cost. We can still invest money into buying new helmets, new safety equipment, uniforms and if you recall, we bought all new tackle (football) uniforms two years ago so finally we're going to break those out of the storage utility for the first time in two years so that will be good."
On the football part of it, working from the third grade team on up, the head coaches include Jason Wooley, Billy Grant, Manolo Martinez, Mike Colameta, Rick Bouchie and Keith DeSisto, who coaches the eighth grade team. Two years ago as sixth graders, that group won the Division 2 Super Bowl title in the first year of competing in the Central Mass League.
"Our coaches, especially with the third, fourth and fifth graders, really stress the fundamentals. All of these coaches are really good and the coaches at the younger levels, they can't stress the fundamentals enough and that's what they focus on which is awesome," said Russo.
This year's season opens Labor Day weekend and each of the six tackle teams will play at least eight games, and then potentially playoffs. In the 8th grade level, there's about 35 teams broken up into different divisions.
"We're one of 35 associations in the league and Tewksbury used to be the most eastern town in the conference and now they have accepted Merrimack Valley, which I believe is based out of Lawrence, and now they are a little bit further east than us," Russo explained. "Today playing in the Central Mass League is the right for us. We looked into Pop Warner and could get back in, and truthfully we should look at that every year just to make sure that we're doing what's best for the entire program, but right now, we really like being in this Central Mass League."
Besides all of the changes on the football side, the cheer side has also been upgraded.
"We got the new uniforms for the cheerleaders and the other thing that we're looking at on the girls side is getting new cheer mats," said Russo.
The program has four cheerleading teams, 6U, 8U, 10U and 12U and the head coaches for those respective teams are Mandy Grant, Melanie Hardy, Sheila Alessia and Andrea Wright.
"In terms of competitions, the 6U team will go through motions, but don't actually compete. The 8U team does a fun competition just to get the jitters out, sort of thing," said Russo. "Then the other teams go to locals which is in October and that's where you compete and the top five advance to the state meet and keep going, hopefully. We did get the green light today that the girls can practice in the cafeteria (at the high school) and they are going to compete, so they need the mats — we can't have the mats here obviously. We'll get to utilize what the high school has as the cheerleading team gets down around 5pm and we can start around 5:30.
"They will cheer at home football games each week and we should have home games every week with the exception of the Harvest Festival as all our teams will be away that weekend."
Besides the football and cheerleading coaches, Russo is also surrounded by a strong Board of Directors, which includes Keith Sullivan as the Vice President, Wooley as the Treasurer, Tania Sullivan as the Secretary, Billy Grant as the Tackle Football Director, his wife Mandy Grant as the Cheer Director, Shawn Anderson as the Flag Football Director.
There's others as well, who help in various roles, including Ryan Suzor (Website), Carmen Zullo (Communication Director), Mike Sitar (Purchasing/Equipment Director), Rob Bjorkgren (Safety), Sheila Alessi (assistant cheer director), Arnie Martel (assistant tackle football director) and Martinez, who along with his coaching duties, serves as the Fundraising Director.
"We have a revamped snack shack," said Russo, whose three kids have all graduated through the program, twins Noah and Grace, both 14 and Zach, who is 12. "Luna Rosa donates meatballs to us every week and (owner) Dave (DiCenso) is great. J & B (Butcher Shop) has donated over 300 hamburgers that we will cook and various people will make different donations each week. That's a big part of our fundraising. Our fundraising efforts the last few years has been tremendous. We actually make as much with our fundraising than we do with our registration."