John Papas has watched plenty of football in his decades coaching at Bentley, Harvard, Tufts, Mount Ida, and Buckingham Browne & Nichols. One thing he hadn’t seen until last season: a high-level spring high school league in New England.
So Papas, the founder of Elite Football Clinics, sought to create one. He launched the Elite Football League, better known as simply “The League,” in 2021. The League finished its second season on a balmy Sunday with a showcase evening at Malden Catholic High School. The day capped a second year of growth for an organization aiming to make competitive football a year-round presence in the region.
“Research says that, quite frankly, the more football you play, the better you’re going to be at it,” Papas said.
Papas had long viewed spring football as an experience and exposure advantage in other locales. He said that nine of the 10 leading states in NFL-bound talent have spring football leagues. But only 21 states in total play during the spring, presenting an opportunity for New England players to join the race.
“Over the years, I have noticed that we have produced a lot of really good players . . . [but] it seems like we’ve kind of fallen behind the states like Florida, Georgia, Texas and California,” Papas said.
Papas enlisted Mike Willey, the BB&N head coach and a former player and coach under him, as league commissioner, and poured his resources and connections into The League.
Practices occurred on weekends to avoid conflicts with spring sports. Players connected with their teams on additional Zoom calls, and after a tryout and preseason period, competed in four regular-season games. The organization employs NCAA-level referees and features several high-profile collegiate and high school head coaches leading the five teams.
“[Coaches] love it, because they get to coach,” Willey said. “[And] every single kid that’s in this league is like a guy that loves football. They love it. They want to get better. They want to get coached hard; they want to improve.”
Recruiting has also been at the forefront of The League’s mission. Every regular-season game is captured on HUDL’s video platform for college coaches. Willey says that programs ranging from Division 2 and 3 powers to FBS universities have consistently checked in on The League.
“We had a bunch of guys from last year earn scholarships and that sort of thing right off of their film,” Willey said. “This year, I think it’ll be the same thing.”
Tiger An, a 5-foot-6-inch sophomore running back from Windham, N.H., didn’t know a single teammate when he joined The League. But he emerged as a breakout star of the season and rumbled for a 15-yard score in a semifinal game. An also saw college interest become more frequent and more accessible on this stage.
“I’ve talked to a ton of people, had a bunch of interviews, [and] got a lot of views. I’m getting out there,” An said.
Lawrence Academy sophomore defensive end Dominic Selvitelli suited up for the Southwest Cobras. He’s been in contact with some Ivy league schools for his defensive prowess, and even caught a one-handed pass as an eligible receiver on Sunday. Selvitelli said his knowledge of the defensive line grew exponentially on the Cobras.
“[Learning] crashing off the end, and what I have to watch in the backfield — all of that defensively was really good [help],” he said.
The Cobras prevailed over the Knights in the final of Sunday’s mini-tournament, winning 21-0 in a shortened game with 14-minute halves. Willey set high expectations for the weekend and the season as a whole, and said the physical play drove home the talents represented in The League.
“I think it exceeded my expectations of how good the product is,” Willey said.