Crisp autumn days may still be weeks away, yet on recent night, dozens of first and second graders braved the heat and humidity at Turkey Brook Park ready to play some football.

“I love it, best day ever,” said six-year old Patrick Valocsik of Budd Lake, who was trying out the sport for the first time.  Learning the plays and doing a scrimmage were his favorite parts of the practice.

“I love the different drills because I get to run fast,” added Quinn Hanson, also six.

These young players are part of the newest batch of Mt. Olive Junior Marauders, the township’s youth football league, which is open to both boys and girls entering kindergarten through eighth grade.  On the heels of a successful high school season, coaches and leaders involved in the sport also hope they will be part of a new era in Mt. Olive football.

Ralph Carpini, the organization’s president, says the league has been operating in the township for roughly 50 years and between its flag and tackle programs serves roughly 150 athletes each season.

Running the league is a huge undertaking, made possible by an army of volunteers. There are 30 coaches across all the levels from flag to tackle in addition to many other parents who fill a number of important roles during games.

“We can’t do it without large help from parents, there’s just too much to do,” he said.

“There are tons of Moms and Dads helping in the concession stand or painting fields. Others help with game day preparation or operating things during the game like down markers.”

According to its website, the purpose of the Junior Marauders program is to instill in its athletes “the ideals of good sportsmanship, honesty, loyalty, courage and respect.”

Caprini says the skills these players learn such as teamwork and comradery will help them to become better men and women.

But, of course, it is also about competition and learning to win.

Especially after last fall, when Mt. Olive’s high school team made just its second trip to the NJSIAA sectional finals.  An incredible accomplishment given its record was 1-9 the prior season.

The team ended up falling to undefeated Old Tappan in the sectional match-up at MetLife by a score of 31 -28, but emerged with their motto of ‘forget what you heard’ intact, ready to defend their top 25 ranking.

Junior Marauder leaders, who see their organization as a feeder program for the high school, are hoping to capitalize on the momentum by further streamlining the training coaches and players receive with that of the high school, even using the same playbook so players can hit the ground running in ninth grade.

Another key issue is safety, because perhaps no sport has been more in the spotlight when it comes to player injuries than football.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, has emerged as a major issue for the National Football League, as more players have stepped forward after being diagnosed with the disease, which is caused by repeated brain trauma and leads to the degeneration of the brain tissue.

Concern over injury could be a reason youth football has seen a drop off in participation, after several studies linked playing the sport as a child to the onset of CTE and neurological issues.

Researchers at Boston University found athletes who played tackle football before age 12 were more prone to behavioral and cognitive issues than those who started playing later in life.

According to the Aspen Institute, participation in youth sports is dropping overall, with only 37 percent of children ages 6 – 12 playing some type over organized sport in 2016, down from 45 percent in 2008.

But the decline in tackle football exceeds the average, falling 19 percent from 2011 to 2016.

Here in Mt. Olive, the Junior Marauders have not seen that kind of drop. However participation does vary from year-to-year, with the number more closely linked to the number of children entering kindergarten.

Carpini admits injuries will happen, but that player safety is the league’s top priority. “Concussion is a very serious issue and we don’t take it lightly at all.”

The organization attempts to minimize their occurrence by staying on top of the latest technology and training, striving to provide the best available equipment while ensuring coaches are educated in the newest techniques aimed at minimizing injury.  In the last few years, youth coaches have had direct training with the high school staff.

Volunteers are also required to undergo background checks and be fingerprinted before stepping foot on the field to work with players.

The Morris County Youth Football League, in which all Junior Marauder teams compete, also requires a certified trainer to be on the sidelines for each game so that an injured player may receive medical attention right away, and no player is allowed to return to the game unless they are cleared by that medical professional.

While focusing on safety first, coaches are also strongly encouraged to emphasize the valuable lessons of teamwork and build a sense of comradery among their players.

“We try to teach them to sit together during school, or wear their football gear, say hi when they pass each other and to bond as a family,” said Carpini.

As the league prepares for the start of another season, increasing fundraising efforts will be top goal.

The cost of playing tackle football is $235 dollars, with the flag level slightly less.

Local parents have expressed concern over the fees, which is why the organizers are looking for ways to help by selling Football Mania tickets and running a haunted corn maze each fall at Highview Farms off of Sandshore Road in the fall.

The league is also currently without a permanent scoreboard for games after its current one was struck by lightning in the middle of last season.  Local businesses have helped with the cost of renting a temporary board, but a replacement will cost $10 thousand dollars, not including instillation.

Caprini is confident the money will come, and scoreboard or not, Junior Mauraders players and coaches will be ready for another season full of football and life lessons.

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