By Joe Frollo
One of the most difficult things for a football team to do is come together as a group.
It’s not natural for many to sacrifice personal accomplishment for collective success.
Now try achieving that in just five days.
The U.S. Under-18 National Team proved time is relative when it comes to building a close group, rallying to beat Team Canada, 29-14, at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex in Austin, Texas.
The victory capped a successful International Bowl Week not just for the U.S. program but for these 44 players and eight coaches who traveled from across the nation to get here but found it was like never leaving home.
“We could talk for hours about how great winning this game was,” said U.S. head coach Chris Metzger of Southern Pines (N.C.) Pinecrest High School. “But – and we don’t use this lightly – this was family, and that’s what made it special. From that first phone call I made to all you guys to this moment, how far we’ve come.”
The United States fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter as Canada was as efficient as the U.S was struggling.
Team USA fumbled away its first possession with Canada taking over at the U.S. 48. 10 plays later, Jonah Pataki scored on a 2-yard run.
The U.S. went three-and-out on its next possession, and Canada drove right down the field again, this time taking nine plays to go 57 yards, capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Chris Merchant to Kevin Collins.
It could have all fallen apart at that point, but sometimes all it takes is one play to turn momentum around – to show a team that not all is lost despite how much is going against it.
“All week we talked about building character and sticking to it,” Metzger said. “Those young men showed what representing their country meant to them.”
Late in the second quarter, with Team USA still scoreless, Brandon Monroe (Loomis, Calif.) broke around the right side and turned a third down into a 35-yard touchdown.
The team rallied around Monroe, who signed a national letter of intent Wednesday morning to accept a full athletic scholarship to San Jose State. He finished with 238 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 32 carries to earn U.S. Player of the Game honors.
“Coach told me in the third quarter that I’d be carrying the ball a lot more, and just said, ‘All right. I’ll do it,” Monroe said. “The offensive line did a great job. The tight ends and wide receivers were making blocks downfield. The whole team really deserved the award.”
Monroe became their work horse, and the rest of them plowed the field.
It didn’t matter who was getting the yards. It was only important that the scoreboard was turning around.
“I’m very proud of how this team played a whole game,” said U.S. offensive lineman Alex Norton of Hamlet, N.C., who signed with Air Force on Wednesday. “I’d never seen a team come together so quickly.”
As Monroe continued to carry the ball, the U.S. offense began finding its stride. The American line wore down the Canadian defenders as the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Monroe found bigger and wider holes to run through.
The U.S. tied the game at 14-14 with 11:11 left in the game on a Monroe 2-yard TD run. The Americans took the lead with 7:29 to play when Monroe scored from 8 yards out. They sealed it on quarterback Tucker Beirne’s (Coral Gables, Fla.) 1-yard sneak.
And all while the offense was moving, the U.S. defense completely shut down the Canadians. Led by six tackles from Nick McBeath (Miami, Fla.) and five from his Christopher Columbus High School teammate Joey Gonzalez (Miami, Fla.), Team USA’s defense finished the game forcing eight straight punts and an interception by Mason Ewing (Layton, Utah).
“We talked all week about how we were going to fight for each other,” said U.S. tight end Jose Alvarado (Miami, Fla.), another Christopher Columbus student. “Families fight for each other and do what they have to do when times are tough. We wanted Brandon to run the ball. We were at our best when Brandon ran the ball.”
LIGHTS OUT Players from the United States and Canada stayed on the field late after the game Wednesday, leaving for the locker rooms only after the lights started being turned off.
Most still didn’t want to go.
“I can’t believe it’s over already,” U.S. two-way lineman Cornelius Henderson (Dallas, Texas) said. “I’ll never forget this.”
BORDER RIVALRY With the Canadians winning the Under-16 matching and winning the Under-19 world championship last summer in Austin, a rivalry is brewing between the two national team programs.
Canadian head coach Ryan Bechmanis, the defensive coordinator at Carlton University, said while the team didn’t win, the players took the opportunity to test themselves and improve.
“You can’t get better unless you play the best,” Bechmanis said. “Opportunities like these will help them grow as players and hopefully give them the chance to play at higher levels on both sides of the border.”
Merchant earned Canada’s Player of the Game Award after completing 14-of-25 passes for 125 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Merchant was his team’s second leading rusher until late sacks dropped him to just 8 yards on 12 carries.