Youth football is alive and well in the Tri-Lakes

Youngsters participating in the Saranac Lake USA Football League go through a drill on the ground during a practice session Saturday morning, Sept. 12, at the Spencer Boatworks field between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale. (News photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — High school football won’t be taking place in the Tri-Lakes this fall, but a big bunch of area youngsters are having fun and staying active while learning about the game.

The brand-new Saranac Lake USA Football league is underway, and approximately 70 participants, grades kindergarten through sixth, will be involved in the program over the next two months. Children from the Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Tupper Lake areas are participating in the league.

For the past several years, PAL football has been the vehicle in the North Country for teaching football to boys and girls the sport. The coronavirus pandemic has caused the cancellation of PAL football this year, and Saranac Lake’s new league has stepped in to fill in the void.

All the action, including practices and eventually flag games, is being held at the field behind Spencer Boatworks along state Route 3. Sign ups were held last month and practices began a week ago. The practices are held in separate sessions split between the younger and older participants.

Eric Bennett, Saranac Lake’s varsity football coach, got the league off and running with the help of more than a half dozen other coaches, as well as parents of children in the program.

Two practices into the season, Bennett said he’s thrilled with what he’s seen so far.

“I’m very excited at the enthusiasm I’ve seen from the kids, coaches and parents,” Bennett said. “I feel like we are providing our kids with with a solid hour-and-a-half of fun, exercise and learning. These kids are go, go, go for an hour-and-a-half, and it’s great.”

The league is all about development, keeping kids active, and of course having fun. Bennett said there’s a learning curve with all sports, and teaching the basics and full participation is part of the focus.

“If you think about baseball, you don’t see kids starting off by trying to hit fastballs. You start with T-ball and move up from there,” Bennett said. “This is the same principle. This is geared toward trying to meet the kids where they are skill-wise. Kids just can’t start off playing tackle football when they don’t know how to fall. Some of the drills we are doing is to get kids comfortable being on the ground.”

Practices, and eventually games, are broken up into age groups that feature kindergarten to second-graders, third- and fourth-graders, and fifth and sixth grade. The teams will play games only in their age groups. The youngest group has between 17-20 children and practices once each week while the two older groups practice two times per week.

Bennett expects there to be three teams of third- and fourth-graders and two teams of fifth- and sixth-grade participants. He said once games begin, players will be moved around on teams in an effort to prevent one squad from being dominant.

Practices will run through the rest of September with flag games taking place on Saturday’s in October. Bennett said the first-year league will wrap up on Oct 31.

“Our biggest goal to to have fun, help kids develop and make them want to come back,” Bennett said. “We’re putting a real emphasis on core values, discipline, teamwork and self-reliance.”

Eventually, kids who stick with the program will move up to the tackle form of the game while following the development steps laid out by USA Football. This year however, tackle football for youth, as well as up through high school, is not allowed in New York due to the pandemic. Bennett said plans are also underway for flag football for middle- and high-school age students under the USA Football format.

All youngsters who are in the league wear masks, as do the coaches and family members watching along the sidelines. There are certain times during the sessions that participants have a mask break.

“I know a lot of eyes are on this,” Bennett said. “We want to make sure everything is safe, when to wear masks, we’re using hand sanitizer, doing whatever we have to do. We want to make sure we do this right.”