Connor Ewing of the U14 Lake Stevens Vikings runs through a drill during the team’s practice Thursday at the Lake Stevens Boys Girls Club. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Connor Ewing of the U14 Lake Stevens Vikings runs through a drill during the team’s practice Thursday at the Lake Stevens Boys Girls Club. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Youth football’s best coming to Snohomish County

The area will host the 1st Northwest Regional to decide who gets to play for a title in Canton, Ohio.

For the next three years, youth football’s road to Canton, Ohio, goes through Snohomish County.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame World Youth Championship is holding its Northwest Regional this weekend, and for local youth football teams it means a chance to qualify for nationals while playing on home turf.

The Northwest Regional takes place Friday through Sunday at two Snohomish County locations. The bulk of the games will be at Archbishop Murphy High School, with a handful of other games taking place at the Tulalip Youth Center.

A total of 20 teams from throughout the region are participating in six different divisions. The bulk of this year’s participants hail from Western Washington, including eight from Snohomish County. But representatives from Eastern Washington and Oregon also are taking part.

“I am stoked to watch these teams,” said Kyle Eldridge, the Northwest Regional director and vice president of Stanwood Youth Football. “I’ve been all over Western Washington to see these teams compete against other teams in their leagues, but seeing them compete against other league champions is going to be pretty epic.”

The winners advance to the national championships on Dec. 7-16 in Canton.

“The excitement is really starting to kick in,” said James Madison, the head coach of the Tulalip Heritage under-12 team. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and honestly this has kind of been a dream for me, our other coaches and the kids.”

The Pro Football Hall of Fame World Youth Championships is a relatively new phenomenon for local teams. Last year, two Snohomish County teams were invited to compete at the Bay Area Regional, which was held in Santa Rosa, California. The Stanwood Youth Football Bantams (U13) advanced out of regionals to the national tournament and won two of their three games in Canton. The Marysville Pilchuck Tomahawks Red 89ers (U10) also competed at regionals. Neither team knew the event existed before being extended a preliminary invitation to regionals by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s scouts midway through the season.

This year the Hall of Fame has expanded the number of regionals. Last year’s Bay Area Regional covered 11 states. The Northwest Regional was added this year, encompassing Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Coaches from both Snohomish County teams that competed at regionals last year are involved at the regional level this season. Eldridge, who was an assistant coach with the Stanwood team, was tabbed to direct the event. Marlin Fryberg, who was the head coach of the Marysville team, is now an area scout.

“It was just overwhelming all the scouts that were at the event last year and the visibility it brought to the kids,” Eldridge said about last year’s experience. “I asked the Hall of Fame how we could get the same visibility to all the teams in the Northwest and get a regional up here.”

Indeed, the Hall of Fame was already thinking about the possibility of a Northwest Regional. The subject was first broached with Snohomish County Sports Commission development director Tammy Dunn in August of 2016.

“We’d been talking to them, and in January of this year they said, ‘Here’s our proposal, are you interested?’” Dunn said. “We were very interested in it coming to the Pacific Northwest. We had conversations about finding football fields and good partners, particularly through the tourism promotion area and grant fund availability through the hoteliers.”

The Hall of Fame and the county ended up signing a three-year deal to hold the Northwest Regional in Snohomish County.

Having the regional here makes it easier for local teams to participate. Last year both Stanwood and Marysville had to scramble to raise funds for the trip to the Bay Area, and Stanwood had to do it all over again to get to Canton, receiving a big boost via a large donation from the Stillaguamish Tribe. While travel expenses remain prohibitive for teams from outside the Puget Sound region, it lessened the burden considerably for local teams.

“Having it here in Snohomish County, you don’t have to worry about having to pay for the first part of it,” Eldridge said. “That’s a huge relief, not having to go around knocking on doors to ask for money. I think it’ll be easier for getting to Canton, too, with only having to ask businesses for assistance once instead of twice.”

A high caliber of play is expected to be on display at regionals, which feature U9, U10, U11, U12, Peewee (weighted) and U14 divisions. Eldridge said the U14 division will be the headliner as the competing teams include Stanwood, the team that won last year’s U13 regional; Lake Stevens, which is 17-3 the past two years with its only losses coming to Stanwood; and Auburn Riverside and Skyline, two teams that are undefeated the past two years.

The first game is at 1 p.m. Friday, and play continues through Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday.

If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at npatterson@heraldnet.com.

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