Aiming to fill the hole brought on by a lack of middle school football in Chatham County, the Siler City Jets 14U team was started in 2022 to help give local athletes the chance to play tackle football in the years leading up to high school.
The team, coached by Chatham Middle School teacher Chris Graves, played their games in the East Wake Football League in the 14U at-large division. Despite playing most of the season with just 16 players, the Jets made it all the way to the league’s championship game before falling to the Raleigh Revolution, 30-18.
Ryan Johnson, co-founder of the team and the head football coach at Jordan-Matthews, said the team’s success in its first year was very encouraging. But what is most important, he said, is giving area athletes the chance of playing football in their middle school years, something many of them lacked in the past.
“Before we did this, kids either took a year off when they couldn't afford to or went to other places where there was middle school football and never came back home,” Johnson said. “It's very vital to keep kids here, and it's also important for the development of these young kids.”
Johnson said it has been common practice for he and his coaches to reteach a lot of fundamentals to incoming ninth graders once they reach Jordan-Matthews, as many haven’t played the sport since they were 10 or 11 years old.
The hope is that bridging the gap between 12U and high school will help build better players and, with that, more team success. This fall, the Jets will welcome eight players who played on last year’s 14U team to their JV squad, a trend Johnson wants to continue in the future.
"The biggest thing is the familiarity,” Johnson said. “They get to know the coaches and faces, and it helps make for a smoother transition. We run our system at Jordan-Matthews all the way down at 8U. It starts at the beginning. The most successful programs, they implement their base stuff even at the age of eight. This class coming in, the first 14U class we've had, has had a smooth transition so far. They know what the coaches expect and they know the culture."
Johnson also wants to put the most talented players on the field, something that was hard to do before the youth team started. With the gap between 12U and high school, many players decided to give up the sport and try new things during the break in between.
“We encourage kids to play all sports, but you kind of run through that brick wall of, after a year away from football, do I really want to go back? It's very important to have the program around right now,” Johnson said.
Right now, Johnson is expecting five or six rising eighth graders who played for the 14U team to return this upcoming season. Registration is still open for the team, and is expected to run through at least July 9, though Johnson said that deadline would likely be extended.
The 14U season will begin after Labor Day, with most games scheduled for Saturdays and the occasional weekday pending scheduling conflicts. Home games are played at Jordan-Matthews in Siler City.
The $225 registration fee, according to the team’s website, includes game pants, game jersey, game socks, helmet, a mouthpiece and shoulder pads. Items not included are padded practice pants, cleats and a practice jersey.
Of course, the Siler City Jets aren’t the only 14U team offered in Chatham County. Also competing as part of the East Wake Football League is the East Chatham Chargers, which acts as a feeder program for Northwood and Seaforth.
For more information on both teams, including details on how to register for the 2023 season, head to ecchargers.org.