The Palo Alto Knights' youth football program is headed back to the AYF Under Armour National Championships following a thrilling 18-12 victory over the Oak Grove Rattlers in the NorCal Championships on Saturday at McClymonds High in Oakland.
Representing the Knights will be their Jr. Pee Wee team, which remained unbeaten this season. Palo Alto will travel to Orlando, Fla., for the national playoffs from Dec. 5-8. This will be the program's eighth trip in the past 12 years, with current Jr. Pee Wees' coach Mike Piha coaching five of those squads. The Knights have finished second three times.
Palo Alto took a big step toward securing its trip to Florida with a dominant first-half performance. They got a two-yard touchdown run from Ethan Stern, which capped a 64-yard drive that featured a 28-yard run by A. J. Julian and a 20-yard run by Stern. The PAT, however, was blocked and Palo Alto settled for a 6-0 first-quarter lead.
The Knights closed the first half with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Stern to Julian with just one second remaining. Piha called a timeout to set up the trick play as Oak Grove thought Palo Alto would run out the clock out heading into halftime.
With a 12-0 halftime lead and the momentum, the Knights may have come out overconfident in the second half as Oak Grove scored two quick touchdowns to tie the game at 12 entering the fourth quarter.
Palo Alto controlled the ball with a 67-yard drive, with big run plays by Julian and Stern setting up Julian's two-yard TD run for the winning points.
The Knights' defense was outstanding throughout the afternoon as it shut down Oak Grove's powerful running game with standout performances by Stern, Jack Devine, Sione Luti, Jamie Cullen and Davian Cox.
"Our defensive game strategy was to blitz the middle on every play," Piha said. "It worked to perfection as we had 50 percent of our stops behind the line of scrimmage."
The Knights will take 28 players to Florida in an effort to win the programs first national championship. The team is seeking financial support to help pay for travel and accommodations. Those interested can contact Piha at firstname.lastname@example.org to sponsor a player.