The West Philly Tarheels made national news last year after their undefeated team's dream of playing in a national football tournament in Florida was dashed.
The dream continues to be just that — though the squad finished the season with another unblemished record.
The Tarheels lost 13-0 on Sunday in a post-season matchup with the Warriors out of Washington.
The team, which advanced this year to the Junior Pee Wee division, was just two wins shy of that elusive national tournament.
"We'll be back," vowed Duane Jones, head coach and director of operations for the Tarheels organization, after the loss. "They took it hard, but they're cool."
After all, the 9- to 11-year olds that make up the squad have arguably faced a bigger let-down.
Last year, these same kids went undefeated all the way in the Mity Mite division, but had the trip to Florida for Pop Warner's national tournament yanked out from under them at the last minute.
They didn't find out until the day they won their final game that league rules had changed months earlier andtheir age group was now excluded. That information somehow hadn't made its way to the Tarheels.
Metro broke the story of the kids' heartbreak, and the team's disappointment went on to make national headlines. But there was a happy ending: A Florida donor heard about the team's plight, and opened their checkbook to give the boys an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World.
"In a way it was messed up when it happened, but in the long run it made things much better for us as a team," Jones said. "The kids had so much fun. It's given them a goal to work towards, and taught them a lesson that hard work does pay off eventually."
Even though they won't be in the national tournament this year, the team has come far. Their organization has a reputation in the neighborhood, Jones said, and has expanded from three teams to four, all of which had great seasons.
Representatives from regional high schools with top-notch football programs have visited practices, while VIPs like Congressman Bob Brady, who secured them Eagles tickets after last year's disappointment, have become staunch supporters.
But touchdowns and trophies aren't the ultimate goals for their players, the coaches said.
"Yes, it’s a football team, but we’re raising young men out here," said Tarheels defensive coordinator Kareem Baylor. "I don’t care about the win. What we care about is you play the best you can and leave it all out there on the field."
Jones agreed: "We want to have them on the fields rather on the streets. We really want to teach accountability to our young men."
That work seems to be paying off. Running on to the field at practice, you can already see these kids have a look of focus and determination in their eyes. After boasting about their "O-line," their center, and their improvement in blocking, the kids turn to discipline as what helped them win so many games this year.
"Coach don’t play about school," said Donte Shaw, 11. "We all know school comes first. You can’t play football if you’re not smart."
If one kid on the team gets into trouble at school, everyone's in trouble, the boys said. Another rule: no taunting the other team. And "don't let 'em get in your head," said quarterback Tyseer Denmark, 11.
What makes their team different?
"We just have more heart," said Nehemiah Brown, 9.
So while they might not have made it all the way this year, the coaches don't believe anything will stop them from going all the way next time.
"It's been an awesome year," Jones said. "I’ve watched them grow and become young men, and get bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. I couldn’t be happier."