These local Pop Warner players are among the brightest student athletes in the nation.
Want to play football or cheer in the Pop Warner program? You’ve got to study a lot more than the playbook to do so. The program maintains strict academic requirements for its players, but about two dozen Lake Mary football and cheer participants are doing a lot more than just making the grades. They’ve joined an elite group of students nationwide to be named Pop Warner All-American Scholars, which requires a 96 percent grade average or above.
And three of those 22 students – Gannon Stoner, Jack Deacutis, and Elaina Loria – were recently named to the Pop Warner National First Team, which measures not just grades but such factors as school involvement and community service. Each student athlete was one of only 35 kids nationwide chosen in their age group.
“They are representative of the top one percent of student athletes,” says Lisa Citrano, Elaina’s mother and one of Lake Mary Pop Warner’s head cheer coaches.
Lisa’s exposure to Pop Warner began at Greenwood Lakes Middle School. She had been involved in gymnastics when she was about five, but found that activity isolating, given the focus on individual performance.
“It didn’t help me make friends at school,” she says.
But in the eighth grade, Lisa discovered the Pop Warner cheer program and found it to be a blast. She would go on to become a cheerleader at Lake Mary High School, as well as a Pop Warner student-coach.
Her daughter, while on the shy side, has discovered the same qualities in Pop Warner that her mom did.
“I like the friendships,” Elaina says. “I like working hard and going to competitions.”
Elaina, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Greenwood Lakes Middle, is in her second year as an All-American Scholar. Her favorite subject is math, and she is taking a high-school-level algebra honors class.
Pop Warner (officially known, in fact, as Pop Warner Little Scholars) is the only national youth sports organization that demands participants do well in school. Deborah Deacutis, Jack’s mother, admires Pop Warner’s commitment to academic excellence.
“If the grades aren’t there, you’re not playing,” she says.
And Deborah has nothing but praise for the Pop Warner coaches, who are demanding without ever being overbearing and recognize that there will be plenty of time in the future for serious competitive sports. At this stage, winning or losing doesn’t matter so much as doing your best, she says, and doing well in school.
Jack, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Markham Woods Middle School, began his sports life in lacrosse, playing as early as the third grade.
“I was never a football guy,” he says. But Pop Warner changed all that last year, and Jack says the program has brought out the best in him.
“It’s very disciplined,” says Jack, a center. “I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
Gannon, a 14-year-old ninth grader at Lake Mary High, started playing flag football at the age of six. “It’s been a ride ever since,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to quit.”
Pop Warner has helped Gannon, a linebacker, develop team-building skills and a unique philosophy: “Don’t do anything stupid, and be sure everyone has a good time.”
While having a good time is certainly emphasized, being involved in football or cheer requires plenty of practice and a commitment to physical fitness. A focus on discipline and time-management, Lisa says, is common to both athletic and scholastic excellence.
“We push them really hard, and they take it very seriously,” says Lisa. “It’s not all fun and games.”
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