GFL begins national title defense

Last year, no one came close.

The Gwinnett Football League eighth graders stormed through the Football University National Championship bracket beating every team with a mercy-rule running clock all the way to the championship.

“GFL’s got a big target on their back now that the secret is out,” said GFL president Erik Richards said. “We definitely aren’t going to sneak up on anybody.”

The title defense for the eighth-graders and title hunts for the GFL seventh- and sixth-grade teams begin this weekend at the Buford Sports Complex which hosts the first four rounds of the FBU National Championship tournament.

This is the third year of the FBU National Championships, a 64 team, single-elimination for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teams representing clusters of teams across the country. Buford’s Youth Sports Complex will host this weekend’s first two round and the following two rounds Dec. 13 and 15. The winners from the four regional sites travel to San Antonio for the Final Four Jan. 3 and 5. NBCSport plans to air the eighth grade championship game live.

“It’s kind of March Madness meets the Little League World Series of baseball format,” Richards said.

The championship rounds are held in connection to the U.S. Army All-American game and the teams who earn the trip to Texas get to meet the members of the Army All-American team as well as attend a variety of events.

“It’s rock-star status in San Antonio,” Richards said.

If any GFL team earns a trip they will meet a few of their own. All four Gwinnett representatives on the team — Korie Rogers, Dante Sawyer, Myles Autry and Kevin Mouhon — all played in the GFL.

GFL opens play Saturday with all three grade levels facing counterparts from Jacksonville and the winners face the winners of Georgia Middle School and Gulf Coast. Georgia Middle School is a team pooled from 45 programs across North Fulton, Forsyth and Cobb County.

“We’ll have to be on our Ps and Qs that first round,” Richards said.

For the GFL teams, Richards collaborates with the coaches from each grade level to build the strongest team. Ken Burge, from Buford, returns as the eighth-grade coach, Mark Jolliff, also of Buford will coach the seventh-grade team and John Lewis of Peachtree Ridge will coach the sixth-grade team. Last year, the seventh-grader lose in the quarterfinals and the sixth-grade team won its two game in an exhibition format. All three grades have championships this year.

The standouts for the eighth-grade team include running backs Nick Prince and Kenneth Harris and 6-foot, 320-pound defensive tackle Robert Cooper. Javonni Cunningham and Alex Contreras help drive the seventh-grade team.

“I think from a coaching and team standpoint (last year’s title run) the country took notice,” Richards said.

Youth football

What: FBU National Championship first two rounds

Where: Buford Youth Sports Complex

When: Games begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday