There are a few options for playing football when you attend middle school in Hernando County. Every middle school in the county offers its own program that plays a full schedule against other schools in the area. The Hernando Youth League has a youth football program in Brooksville that also has a middle school-aged division called the Junior Midgets.
Another option is the West Hernando Cougars and its Junior Varsity Division. This squad has thrived in the Pasco Police Athletic League despite the fact that talented adolescents have other places to go if they choose. Two of the stars for the JV program are Matthew Breida, an up-and-coming running back, and Shane Heroux, a star linebacker.
"People hear about us through the grapevine," Cougars director Bob McFarland said. "They know that we are a competitive bunch, but as long as they keep their grades up and practice hard, they're going to get playing time."
Matthew and Shane were members of the Cougars' PPAL Mighty Mites championship team last season. Moving up to JV this season was supposed to include a transition period for both players, but the overwhelming talent of these two stars has translated to the gridiron almost immediately.
Matthew, 13, plays tailback and has been the focal point of the offense for JV coach Mike Zink. In the opener against New Port Richey, Matthew showed glimpses of what is possible down the road, but by his own admission, there were some jitters his first time out.
"I really thought it would be harder once I got up to JV," he said, "but I adjusted pretty well after that first game."
Teammates Jeremy Williams and Rashad Hart helped him feel more comfortable. Jeremy and Rashad, major cogs on both sides of the ball, along with the coaching staff for the Cougars, are the two major reasons Matthew prefers this program to middle school football.
"A lot of guys from Brooksville are making their way over (to West Hernando) year after year because things are more organized," Matthew said. "The coaches are better here, and they are willing to give you the extra attention you need to get better."
Shane's situation isn't much different. His family moved from Seffner, and before that, his brother, Heath, attended Armwood High, a well-known prep football program in Hillsborough County. That fact alone placed both Heath and Shane in the feeder system that has developed strong players for that program.
"The level of competition down there was tougher just because most of the kids were more experienced," Shane said. "I think that's helped me a lot here."
When the family moved, Heath provided his standout defensive play to Central High, and Shane became a star linebacker for West Hernando's Mighty Mites team. His play on defense translates at any level of play and he attacks his role with the kind of reckless abandon that separates good linebackers from great ones.
"I try to go all-out on every play," Shane said. "That is something I learned from my brother, and hopefully, that will help me get where I want to go."
Matthew and Shane have NFL dreams, but their more immediate goals include another PPAL championship before heading off to high school.
In the scheme of local youth sports, these two young men are not only examples of middle school athletes who are choosing youth programs over middle school sports, but also a reason why. Players such as these bring the level of competition up, and in turn, that brings in more athletes.
"Kids want two things out of youth football," McFarland said. "They want good coaching, and they want to see the field.
"Here they get both."
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