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HAMMOCK: Gwinnett Football League eighth-graders close in on Football University national title

Nearly a year ago, a group of Gwinnett Football League eighth-graders put the county’s football prowess on the national scene. Another team gets the chance next week.

The GFL advanced to the Final Four of the Football University National Championships with a pair of victories last weekend, proving that Gwinnett’s youth league talent is as impressive as the high school stars we hear about so much. It advances to San Antonio for the semifinals, and hopefully finals, next week with a chance to defend the coveted eighth-grade national title.

Last year’s GFL team was underrated and unknown, but its victory in the FBU event was a breakthrough, which has been followed by even more success from another group of eighth-graders.

“I think nationally the respect was there (last year), which was kind of surprising,” said GFL president Erik Richards, who is also national youth director for FBU. “People thought South Florida is going to win it all. Nashville is going to win it all. Kentucky is going to win this bracket. … I thought nationally we weren’t given the respect. But this year doing what we did, I don’t think we have to worry about that anymore.”

GFL defeated Nashville 28-7 and Southwest Florida 26-0 last weekend, moving on in the 64-team bracket of youth powers behind a stout defense, particularly on the line. Its first two wins also were strong defensive efforts — 13-0 over Gulf Coast and 14-7 over GMSAA-Georgia.

Defensive linemen Robert Cooper (South Gwinnett’s GFL team) and Realus “Booman” George (Duluth) lead the way.

“Our defensive line is potentially the best I’ve seen at the youth level,” Richards said. “Robert Cooper is the best defensive lineman we’ve had in the GFL since (Grayson star and Class of 2013 No. 1 national recruit) Robert Nkemdiche.”

That said, the offensive has been pretty good, too.

Nick Prince (Grayson), Lunden Bailey (Buford), Cole Wroble (Mill Creek), Chris Dominguez (Peachtree Ridge), Kenneth Harris (South Gwinnett) and Matthew Hill (South Gwinnett) are among the top offensive playmakers. Brookwood’s Casey Holman, an Eastbay All-American as a seventh-grader, anchors the offensive line.

The other two GFL teams in the event didn’t quite make it to San Antonio. The seventh-graders lost in the quarterfinals and the sixth-graders lost in the second round.

But the eighth-graders are still going, just two wins away from a second straight national title.

“We’re excited to have the chance to go back,” Richards said. “It’s a pretty big deal. … Our coaching staff has been a big part of this success. They’ve done this the last two years. They’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.”

Ken Burge is the head coach of the GFL’s eighth-grade all-star team, filling the same role he’s held the past two seasons. He does an excellent job with the on-field duties the position requires, but it also includes other duties, like fundraising. The surprise trip to Texas will require some last-minute gathering — those interested in assisting can donate through the Gwinnett Football League (www.gwinnettfootball.com) or through the Buford Youth Football Association (www.byfa.net).

“I’m just excited we can get them out there and give them a chance to experience this,” Burge said. “That’s the fun part of it.”

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.

FOOTBALL

What: Football University National Championships

When: Jan. 3-5

Where: San Antonio (finals played at Alamodome)

Matchups: Gwinnett Football League vs. Maryland in one semifinal; St. Louis vs. Seattle in the other

Team Roster

1 Bryson Richardson

2 Joshua Campbell

3 Nolan Edmonds

7 Derrik Allen

8 Darnell Jeffries

9 William Van Pamelen

16 Trevor Lawrence

17 Marcus Webster

22 Matthew Hill

23 Chris Dominguez

24 Lunden Bailey

25 Christian Malloy

27 Cole Wroble

29 Nick Prince

30 Herbert Winborne

33 J.T. Ferebee

34 Mick Reese

37 Omar Sinclair

38 Erick Turner

39 Christopher Cotter

48 Payne Walker

54 Solomon Egbe

59 Delvalo Baitey

61 Daniel Webster

65 Joshua Mouzon

66 Nazir Sy

68 Joshua Armstrong

69 Jamaree Salyer

70 Robert Cooper

71 Isa Washington

75 Bradley Kopydlowski

77 Casey Holman

84 Kenneth Harris

89 Evan Fleming

97 Peyton Bergman

99 Realus George