By Paul Lonardo
For the last three years, Lincoln Lions head football coach Brad Nicoll has been guiding largely the same group of kids on the gridiron, among them his son John, who is the quarterback and outside linebacker for the team. In 2015, Coach Nicoll took an undefeated 8U team all the way to the Blackstone Valley Youth Football and Cheer (BVYFC) Super Bowl, and winning it 32-6 over Central Falls. The following season, his 9U team lost an overtime heartbreaker in a play-in game to the Super Bowl. In 2017, the team built on the success of the past and went on to a championship season, going further than they ever had before.
For these 10 year-olds, their season began last July when they started practice, giving them a month and half to prepare for their full schedule of games.
“Coming back this year, we knew that there were going to be some pretty good teams,” Coach Nicoll said. “There was one team from Mashpee, MA, the Upper Cape Spartans, that had won a bunch of games in a row, and won the Super Bowl last year, so we had our work cut out for us.”
Posting a 7-2 record, the team had a solid regular season, playing tough, competitive football, and getting better every week.
“We really jelled as a team,” Coach Nicoll said. “Week 5, we played Woonsocket, a really good team. They hadn’t lost a game, and we ended up beating them in overtime. It was a really big win for us.”
Their two defeats came against teams they would see again in the playoffs, but they finished strong and were peaking at the right time. On October 22, the last game of the regular season, they upset the Upper Cape Spartans, a team that had won their previous nineteen games. Making the win even more impressive, the Lions did it on the road.
When the playoffs began on October 25, the second-seeded Lions drew the Black Knights and beat the team from Norton, MA by a score of 28-6. The CLCF Chiefs were Lincoln’s next opponent in a semifinal game played four days later, which Coach Nicoll’s team also won decisively, 25-6.
These two victories put the Lions into the BVYFC Super Bowl, played on November 5 against the top-seeded, and undefeated, Fairlawn Cardinals. Earlier in the season, the Cardinals defeated Lincoln 24-15, but in this big game, the Lions were the ones who came out on top by a score of 27-13. It was the team’s second Super Bowl clincher in three years under Coach Nicholl.
“This was a huge win for these kids, for the town” Coach Nicoll said. “We didn’t really expect to get there with teams like Upper Cape in our way. But one of thing I have to say about the Upper Cape team is that they are a real class act, and not only on the field. I think every one of their players and coaches showed up at the Super Bowl game, and were routing hard for us. The sportsmanship they showed was impressive. That’s really what this game, and all sports, is all about, teaching kids respect for others through sportsmanship.”
In the New England regional playoffs that followed, the Lions received a bye before their title game matchup against another undefeated opponent, the Meriden Connecticut Raiders, who had won the championship the previous season. The game was played on November 19 at Durfee High School’s Mac Aldrich Field in Fall River, MA. Lincoln struck first, and quickly, behind a 65-yard touchdown run by Dashaun Raczkowski. That would be the only points scored in the game due to a combination of tough defense and difficult weather conditions, in which heavy winds and soaking rains affected both sides. With the Lions’ hard-fought 7-0 victory, the town captured its first American Youth Football (AYF) New England regional title.
“It was an exhausting game, but that win is one these kids will never forget,” Coach Nicoll said. ”I couldn’t have been prouder of them.”
Becoming BVYFC Super Bowl and New England Regional champs was a challenge the team had been preparing for over the past four months, but their success created a whole new set of challenges that no one, including Coach Nicoll, was prepared for. Soon after the euphoric victory against Meriden came the realization that Lincoln was going to play in the AYF National Championship in Kissimmee, Florida, and with that came the sudden and overwhelming challenges of arranging travel, accommodations, food and incidentals for the entire team and staff. And it all had to be done in two weeks.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Coach Nicoll says. “The money that had to be raised in such a short period of time was daunting. Nobody knew how to do this. None of us had ever done anything like that before. But somehow we figured it out.”
Through a concerted effort, the players and the families of all the little Lions came together and made it happen. They started a GoFundMe page, sought corporate and local business sponsors, solicited individual donations from endeavors such as “canning” outside Stop & Shop and other locations.
“It was a lot to ask of people, a couple weeks before Christmas, to dig into their pockets and help get our football team to Florida to be part of this national tournament,” Coach Nicoll said. “It really speaks to the generosity of this community. On behalf of everyone, we are all grateful for the many contributions, and we know how fortunate we are to be raising our children here.”
Well, they all made it down to Florida, and that seemed like a victory in and of itself, but then it came time to play. It was a double elimination tournament against all the best teams in eight regions around the country, with Lincoln representing New England. It was a great honor for the Lions, but it was humbling to see the level of competition that is out there. Most of the other teams play in tournaments, if not all year round, then a good part of the year, and they draw players from much larger areas, so the talent and ability, not to mention size, was not something any of the Lincoln players had ever seen before. The Lions were beaten 35-0 in their first matchup with the Southside Ducks out of Houston, the team that would go on to win the national championship. Two days later, Lincoln suited up again to play the South Carolina Bulldogs, also losing this one 35-0.
“I was happy to leave with no injuries,” Coach Nicoll said with a smile. “But in all honesty, it was such a great learning experience for these kids, the football and the life lessons. What they got out of it, made it all worthwhile.”
And who knows what next year season will bring when Coach Nicholl brings his son, John, and the group of 11 year olds back out onto the field in the fall. It seems like a long way off, but it will be here before you know it. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Lions 10U team can look back on a successful season with great pride. Well done, boys.