Santa Cruz Pop Warner 12U football, cheer teams seek national titles in December

The 2022 12U Santa Cruz Seahawks.
(Via Rachael O’Hara)

The Santa Cruz Seahawks 12U team has again qualified for the Pop Warner National Championships in Florida after winning it all last season. The junior varsity cheer team has also qualified, and looks to bring home its first national title.

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The Santa Cruz Seahawks Pop Warner 12-and-under football played to the tune of an 11-0 record this season, securing the title of Pacific Northwest Regional champions. But they aren’t done yet.

After winning the Pop Warner National Championship last year, the team is looking to run it back in Orlando, Florida, this year as it vies for its second national Division I title in as many years. The program’s junior varsity cheer team will also head to the Sunshine State in pursuit of its first national title.

Ernie Camacho, president of Santa Cruz Pop Warner Football and Cheer, set out to make the program nationally competitive when he became president eight years ago. That has become a reality, but you won’t find him taking the credit.

Rather, he cites a strong crop of players — some of whom have played together for years — as the main reason for national success.

“This particular football team is one of my greatest experiences as a coach, and I’ve been coaching for 20-something years now,” he said. “It’s like a proud-dad moment. You watch these young men and women work hard and prepare for these moments, and seeing them achieve their goals is as close as it gets to things like watching your kid graduate.”

The Seahawks take the field against the East Bay Warriors.
(Via Rachael O’Hara)

There are only a few returning players on this year’s team, but they go back years, having played together since they were in the program’s “Tiny Mites” division of players ages 5-7. At this point, they are quite familiar with the program’s game strategies.

“It does make it easier, because we teach the same system from Day 1 all the way through our oldest programs,” said offensive coordinator John O’Hara. “It’s much faster than it would be with a brand-new team learning an offense for the first time.”

The Seahawks are set to play Dec. 4. Should they win, they will play another game Dec. 6, and if they win that game they’ll move on to the Dec. 12 championship.

The JV cheer team has a similar story.

Jill Camacho, cheer coach and athletic director as well as Ernie’s wife, has coached many of the girls on the current team since they were in that same 5-to-7-year-old age group.

“Because the core has been cheering together for a while, they’re extremely knowledgeable,” she said. “We have an extremely talented group that really knows their stuff.”

Camacho said the cheer team’s capabilities were clear from the beginning.

“I saw the raw talent right away, and after that, it was molding them into what they are today,” she said. “COVID was kind of a roadblock, and they had to sort of relearn everything. This year, they’re reaching their full potential.”

The two teams have similar stories, but the difference is that the cheer team gets only one 2½-minute routine to show judges what they’ve got.

“We only get one shot, we go out there and do our routine, and it is what it is,” said Camacho.

The junior varsity Santa Cruz Seahawks cheer team.
(Via Jill Camacho)

Both teams’ unity and talent is clearly there. Now the focus is on fundraising.

“Total, it’s a little over $80,000 that they’re having to come up with in order to get the whole team there,” said Rachael O’Hara, John’s wife.

The team has set up a Vertical Raise fundraiser. Players and their families have also held bake sales, a car wash and raffles to raise money for the trip. Rachael O’Hara said local businesses have stepped up, too, particularly with restaurant nights to help fund the team’s trip.

“Aptos Barbecue gave us a dinner night last week, we have Woodstock’s this week, and the week before we did Panda Express and Mountain Mike’s in Aptos,” she said. “They’ve all been very supportive and letting us do a restaurant night there to try to bring in funds.”

With the teams’ talent well established and more fundraising events to come, the players, parents and coaches feel prepared for the championships in December. But winning requires more than just teamwork and preparation.

“There’s the familiarity with each other and the coaches,” John O’Hara said, “but also a little bit of luck.”

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