September 20, 2023

Princeton Junior Football League Starting 2023 Season, Aiming to Give Full Benefit to a Record Turnout of Players

FULL SPEED AHEAD: A player races to the end zone in action last fall in the Princeton Junior Football League (PJFL). The popular flag football league, which is in its 11th year, will be kicking off its 2023 campaign this Sunday at the Princeton High turf field. (Photo provided courtesy of PJFL)

By Bill Alden

For the Navy Seals, the term “Full Benefit” stands for a philosophy that implores one to get the most out of any situation, good or bad.

That Full Benefit mindset is being employed by the Princeton Junior Football League (PJFL) as it kicks off its 2023 campaign this Sunday at the Princeton High turf field.

“We really wanted that theme this year because we are getting the full benefit with more kids and more divisions,” said PJFL president Matt Bellace, noting that the Princeton police will be co-sponsoring opening day with plans to provide refreshments and stage an exhibition game.

“You know what, whether you are having a great game or the worst game of your life, this is how you get full benefit. It became a motivational theme. We made T-shirts that we gave out to the kids with PJFL on the front and Full Benefit on the back.”

The flag football league, now in its 11th year, has registered 233 players this fall, the most ever for the program. With those numbers — which include players from surrounding towns such as Pennington, Lawrence, Ewing, and Hopewell — the PJFL will feature four divisions for the first time: Rookie (1st/2nd grades), Juniors (3rd/4th grades), Super Juniors (5th/6th grades), and Seniors (7th/8th).

The PJFL decided to make two junior divisions to help younger players see more action.

“We had had been talking about it for years because that is a wide age range, from third to fifth and then sixth to eighth,” said Bellace. “Every year we would have kids at the lower end of that age bracket that were kind of limited and they couldn’t compete with the older kids. It was a dream of ours that if one day we get enough kids, we are going to try to do this. It actually goes along with the theme. We wanted the kids to get more out of it.”

In addition, the league is giving former PJFL players the chance to stay involved with the program.

“We have utilized high school students as assistant coaches; they are often PJFL alums who come back to help us,” said Bellace. “That is a new program that we started this year.”

Another program in the works is the creation of a college scholarship to be given annually to a local high school senior.

“We are going to give a scholarship to a graduating senior, preferably one who has been part of PJFL who went on to help us or played football or did something in the community that we appreciate,” said Bellace. “We don’t know the amount yet, but it will be sizable.”

The Princeton High football community is benefiting from the PJFL as PHS head coach Charlie Gallagher has cited the league as a pipeline that helped the Tigers attract 67 players this fall.

“We graduated a lot of really talented eighth graders last year, to see that it impacted what he is doing gives us a lot of pride,” said Bellace, referring to Gallagher’s comments. “When the league was founded by the Petrones (Jason and Judd) and John Angelucci, that was the idea. Pop Warner had dwindled and this was started to help the high school as a feeder program.”

While Bellace is proud of the impact on the PHS squad, that is not the league’s main focus.

“We really create a sense of community by having all of our practices and all of our games together,” said Bellace, adding that the PJFL is coed, with about 10 girls registered this season. “We don’t spread people out across town. Everyone is together and we try to make it a true Rec League. It is not a travel team six days a week. We practice Thursday nights and play games on Sundays.”

The league’s coaches are encouraged help the players keep it together when they face disappointment.

“We try to get the coaches to reframe the kids when they are upset,” said Bellace. “You see a kid drop a pass at the end of the game and he is in tears because he thinks the whole team is down on him. The coach needs to have the ability to say this is going to happen and there are a lot of plays in the game. That vibe is really important; that is an important perspective to sports these days and we are trying to do that.”

In Bellace’s view, maintaining that positive vibe is the main benefit of the league.

“The parents are used to youth sports being so busy these days, this isn’t that,” said Bellace. “It is not about the wins and losses, what matters the most is the community feel to it and the fun, coming out, and connecting with people.”