Youth sports teams in Plant City have seen plenty of success in recent years.
From Little League teams winning state and region titles to youth soccer programs advancing to state competitions, the area is rich in young talent.
Most recently, Plant City’s youth football players took the national spotlight for their achievements and accolades on the field.
SigningDay.com has partnered with the United Youth Football League to release national rankings of UYFL affiliate youth football programs. Seven local teams have been ranked by the national recruiting website, including one, the 10U Plant City Raiders Elite, ranked No. 1 in its age division. Six Plant City Dolphins teams also are ranked.
For the past two years, the UYFL National Championships have been held at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex, in Plant City, through a partnership between the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the Plant City Recreation and Parks Department.
Last year’s tournament featured players, ranging from 6 to 16 years old, representing 110 youth football teams from 22 states. The national championships will return Dec 8 to 13, to the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, with as many as 160 teams expected to participate.
The highest ranked local team has played together for the shortest amount of time.
The 10U Raiders, an “Elite,” or All-Star team comprising of members of the Plant City Colts and players from Brandon and other surrounding areas, formed last October. As an Elite team, it doesn’t play a full schedule, such as the ranked Dolphins teams. The Raiders’ first tournament — the Turkey Day Classic, in Atlanta — came just a month after they started practicing. The Raiders went home 0-2.
It was a different story a few weeks later at the UYFL National Championships in Plant City. The team went 3-0 in the tournament, claiming the national title in the 10U category.
The Raiders beat teams from Newark, N.J., Jacksonville and Chicago to win the championship, which was a large factor of the team’s No. 1 ranking this year.
“We knew that with some of the players we had our team was going to be special, but we didn’t expect a No. 1 ranking,” 10U Raiders Elite defensive coordinator Timothy Knighten said. “That’s a great accomplishment, especially for a new program.”
Chicago’s Homewood Flossmoor, the team the Raiders beat in the finals, came into the national tournament undefeated for the past two years.
According to Knighten, there will be a Raiders 10U team at this year’s tournament, but most of the players on the national championship team will play for a 12U team.
“Some of the kids are 11, and others are just turning 11, so by playing as a 12U team, they will be together for two years,” he said. “We feel like we can compete with the older kids in the 12U division.”
Maurice Anderson, who played running back for the Plant City Dolphins peewee team that competed in the UYFL championships, is expected to play for the Raiders Elite this year.
Knighten’s son, Zamir, was one of the standout players for Raiders last December. He has been piling up accolades and invites off the field since and will compete in the All-American Bowl as a part of Team USA in late December and early January.
Having six Plant City Dolphins teams ranked by SigningDay.com is no surprise to Dolphins longtime President Buddy Bennett.
“We have several head coaches with 12 to 15 years of experience,” Bennett said. “That really shows when they’re on the sidelines.”
The Dolphins only had two teams represented in last year’s national championships — peewee and junior varsity. According to Bennett, three teams are expected to participate this year — varsity, JV and midgets — with peewee as a possibility.
The highest ranked Dolphins team is ranked third in the Junior Midget DI division. Another Dolphins team is ranked 11th in that division.
Other ranked Dolphins teams include 15U (12th), Mighty Mites (sixth), Cadet (10th) and Junior Peewee DI (ninth).
“It’s great to have an event like this right here in Plant City,” Bennett said about local teams being able to compete on a national level with virtually no expenses or travel costs.
Teams coming from the Northeast or Midwest usually take a week or more off from work and school to compete in the tournament, while local teams are able to compete in the afternoons and at night, without interrupting daily routines.
There will be plenty of competition for the Dolphins and Raiders this December, with 160 teams expected. The championships are expected to return in 2014 and officials are already estimating 200 or more teams.
“With even more teams, it will make it tough to win it and keep those rankings up,” Bennett said.