The south Pocatello/Century Steelers play the southeast Blackfoot Broncos on Saturday at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena for the Southeast Idaho Youth Football League’s 2021 championships.

POCATELLO — The Southeast Idaho Youth Football League returned to the field this season after spending last year mostly on the sidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. Players and coaches alike were excited for their teams to dust off their shoulder pads and compete.

The league, which held no-contact skills camps in lieu of games last year at the regional health department’s recommendation, ended its 2021 season on a high note on Saturday, with 12 of the best teams in the league facing off in championship matches at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena.

SIYFL had more than 1,400 fifth- through eighth-grade players play this season from Pocatello, Aberdeen, American Falls, Bear Lake, Blackfoot, Chubbuck, Fort Hall, Grace, Inkom, Malad, Marsh Valley, McCammon, Rockland, Snake River, Soda Springs and Westside.

Only 12 teams made it to the championships on Saturday, where the West Highland Bengals played the southeast Blackfoot Jets; the Malad Dragons faced off against the Soda Springs Cardinals; the south Pocatello/Century Steelers played the southeast Blackfoot Broncos, the East Highland Seahawks took on the West Highland Buccaneers; the East Highland Cowboys played the southeast Blackfoot Broncos; and the Snake River Panthers played the West Highland 49ers.

The league, formed in 1968, has shown significant growth in just the past year, expanding by hundreds of players in 2021 from 1,165 in 2019.

On its website, SIYFL wrote that its 2019 registration amounted to the largest growth it had seen in its history. Now, its player numbers this year reflect a league that’s on track to keep its reputation as one of the largest youth leagues in the Northwest.

For Jared Cooper, who has been a youth football coach for about eight years and is now head coach of the seventh-grade south Pocatello Steelers, the league means more than just giving kids a place to showcase their athleticism. It’s about brotherhood, he said.

“If there’s one demographic that’s been hit the most (from the pandemic), I think it’s been the youth, whether it’s for their mental wellness or other areas,” he said. “I think it’s really important for these kids to really have something to work for, and especially for them to know that they have each other. Brotherhood is a big deal.”

Cooper said while the teens were excited to be back with their teammates, he saw among his players at the beginning of this season a bit of disorientation following a year of navigating strict health safety rules. Though, they eventually got their heads back in the game, he said.

“It took a lot of conditioning, a lot of just basic drills, tackling drills, to get them to understand what football is again and get them back in the football mindset,” Cooper said.

Whatever the coaches did, it appears to have worked. The Steelers won their championship match on Saturday, besting the southeast Blackfoot Broncos 33-27 in overtime.

The league now has about 350 coaches, an 18-member board of directors and 12 field commissioners, all of whom are volunteers. Duane Rawlings, head coach of the West Highland Buccaneers, is one of them.

Rawlings spoke with the Idaho State Journal after a tough 30-16 loss to the East Highland Seahawks on Saturday. It was his first year coaching the Buccaneers, and despite the championship loss, it was a good season, he said.

“This team had a great season. They got better each day throughout the year,” he said.

Rawlings added that it was tough rallying a team to victory after they had skipped a year of contact skills practice. But he said it was a league-wide challenge and most of the teams “were on the same page” — because nobody really got to play last year during the pandemic.

Rawlings reflected on the ups and downs of the post-pandemic season and said regardless of the championship game’s outcome, his favorite part of coaching has been “just getting to know all these players and their families.”

“They’re such great kids,” he said. “Getting to know them and seeing them just grow, not only as players but as young men, is by far the best. They’ve got a bright future in football and a bright future in a lot of things.”

This year marked the league’s 53rd season since its inception.

Les Hernandez, the league’s president, said the league had a “really good turnout” this year, as it added new partnerships with the Mini-Cassia Youth Contact Football League in Burley and the Upper Valley league in Idaho Falls.

Hernandez said he thinks the growth SIYFL saw this season will continue in the coming years. He attributed the league’s attracting more players partly to an earlier-than-usual advertising effort the league rolled out this year.

“We wanted to try to drum up more excitement about the league, especially because we didn’t play last year,” he said. “We felt like we needed to do something to really step it up this year to get kids wanting to come back out and play.”

The league has emphasized to parents that the safety of their children with COVID-19 still spreading is important and teams will continue to take precautions as long as that’s the case.

SIYFL has already started advertising for next year’s registration. Hernandez said he hopes the effort helps attract more players once again.