Few will argue that the Granite State is hardly viewed as a football powerhouse compared to other states, which play and train year-round while New Hampshire’s teams are limited due to variable weather throughout the year.
The Manchester East Cobras are giving folks a reason to reconsider how the state stacks up nationally. The Cobras 11U football team pulled together 28 consecutive wins between the 2017-2018 season, which included a 10U national title at the American Youth Football National Championships in Kissimmee, Fla., last December. The bid for a 29th straight win fell short on Tuesday in the semifinals of this year’s AYF Division II 11U All-American National Championship tournament in Kissimmee as top-seeded Manchester was beaten by Sims Raiders of Cleveland, 28-8. The Cobras, who had a first-round bye, will play for third place on Thursday at 9 a.m. against the Tucson (Ariz.) Falcons.
“We had the same team coming back from last year and they were hungry after that taste of success,” Cobras coach Matt McDonald said. Manchester has the same staff and personnel, plus three new players, as last year’s title team. “They were working out on their own this spring. They were trying to get better every week. I have never seen a group of kids at this age that are so passionate about getting better and work on their craft. It’s really for the love of the game.”
In its 18th year, the Cobras program has five tackle football teams for kids ages 8-13, a flag football team for ages 5-7, and four cheerleading squads for different ages. Maria Young, who’s in her eighth year as president of the Cobras, said the program has added three football divisions and two cheerleading divisions in the last four years.
The unprecedented two-year run by McDonald’s 11U squad was a landmark for not only the Cobras, but the New Hampshire Youth Football Conference. Last year’s run made the Cobras the first New Hampshire team in 25 years to win its region and win a national title.
“We’re truly amazed by what this team has done,” Young said. “This 11U team went up against Texas last year. That state lives, eats and breathes football. We practice three months out of the year, some of the time with snow on the field, and then they’re down playing in 95-degree heat. It’s unbelievable.”
Last year’s championship run was historic, but the Cobras are following up in impressive fashion in 2018. Manchester has outscored its opponents 464-14 prior to Tuesday’s contest. The Cobras’ defense had allowed one touchdown while the other score came on Manchester’s only lost fumble of the season.
McDonald said his team carries a balanced offense that can either run or throw for scores. He estimated that the Cobras average five or six plays before finding the end zone.
“Last year was just a first-year team so this is year No. 2 of being together,” McDonald said. “We don’t change anything. We have our playbook and have run it the last two years. We want to make the other team try to stop us, which has been hard with how consistent these kids are running things.”
McDonald added that his linemen are the key on both sides of the ball. While they match up favorably against in-state competition, McDonald’s trench crew is significantly undersized in regional and national play. The linemen make up for their stature with smart, technically-sound play and top-notch communication.
“We’ve got some talent, but they are what make us go,” McDonald said. “We hold them in as high regard as any skill player on this team in terms of what they offer towards our success.”
The good fortune has a lot to do with McDonald, who is a former Cobra player.
“Matt is everything and more,” said Maria Young, who is in her eighth year as president of the Cobras program. “He is the epitome of what a coach should be. Being a player himself, he knows what it takes to be a good football player. He gets to their level, understands how they think on the field while using and teaching plays through the kids’ everyday, ordinary activities.”
McDonald is in his 14th year of coaching and has coached many of the graduating members of the Manchester Central varsity team, including Alex Hawkom, Cam Varney, Nick Olibrice and Justus Brady. McDonald offers those high school talents as examples for his current players to follow.
On top of a track record for development, McDonald has devised a culture with an old-school approach to coaching.
“We’re a disciplinary group and less of a talking team,” McDonald said. “If teams talk back to us, it actually fires our kids up. It’s an attitude and culture that we’ve set, and that comes with a big shout out to the parents. You don’t see hard-discipline coaching too much nowadays. You’re not allowed to do it. It’s hands off here because we as a staff have earned the parents’ respect. We had to.”