Dylan Szych and Bruce Blanden are well aware their Port Charlotte Bandits 12U squad doesn’t pass the eye test when they stride onto the field.

“Everyone just assumes we wouldn’t be anything because we’re not a big team and they always underestimated us because we’re small,” said do-it-all athlete Bruce Blanden. “We have a lot of small kids, but we’ve proven them wrong going up and down the field.”

The undefeated Bandits are heading to the Pop Warner National Championships this weekend at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. They will take on Escondido (Calif.) in Sunday’s quarterfinal at 10:30 a.m.

The team gathered around long-time head coach Les Hansen on Wednesday night at Franz Ross Park as Pop Warner unveiled the brackets live on the organization’s YouTube channel. As soon as Escondido was announced as the opponent, Hansen told the team he had already seen film on their foe.

“It’s a good opponent for us to start off with,” Hansen told the players before turning from the macro to the micro in the way that has made him so successful over the years. “Tomorrow’s practice is so important. It’s the biggest practice of the year by far.”

Several of the coaches on the Bandits played for Hansen in the 1990s and went to nationals as well, and are now seeing their sons play on the same stage.

Szych is an undersized quarterback with a huge arm while Blanden has recorded running, passing and receiving touchdowns. The two came up huge during the first week of November against the Fort Myers Lions in the Peace River Conference championship. Szych connected with Ozias Dorsey for a 64-yard touchdown and Blanden completed a 56-yard scoring strike to Sharod Williams as the Bandits won, 14-6.

This past weekend in the Southeast Regional championship game, the Bandits gave away a lot of size to the Forestview (Jacksonville) Steelers, but their superior conditioning in muggy environs led the way to a 27-6 romp.

It was a complete team effort with Dorsey scoring a pair of touchdowns. Blanden and Malakai Carrion also scored after Szych drove the team into scoring position. Despite giving away size, the offensive line of Lucas Clark, Isaiah St. Jacques, Saul Jean, Rhyan Lowe and Ayden Gorr held its own.

Defensively, Chase Angelini, Logan Martin, Eli Pearl, Kaison Weatherhead, Dupri Gainer and Malachi Alger spearheaded the effort. Williams kicked an extra point and Carter Cone came through with deep kickoffs, keeping the Steelers on the wrong end of the field position battle.

“By the fourth quarter, their defense didn’t come out on the field,” Szych said. “We just ran the plays and we scored. That’s what happened the whole game.”

The victory moved the Bandits closer to checking a box on a punch list the team created in the preseason.

“We knew we had this kind of team starting in conditioning,” Blanden said. “Our goal this year when we had that first sit-down and talk was we wanted to win that national championship. Now, that’s where we’re at.”

Since it is the first time at nationals for the everyone on the team, Blanden admitted there might be some nerves when they step into the 65,000-seat Camping World Stadium on Sunday.

“We’re all going to be nervous, but let’s get that butterfly feeling out on the first play of the game and start hitting them in the mouth,” he said. “Hand it to them the whole game, then once we get to the fourth quarter, keep working until it says ‘zero’ on the clock.”

Win or lose, the Bandits will play again on Wednesday, either in the semifinals or consolation round. The national championship game will be Dec. 11.

While the Bandits football team is on the field, three Bandits cheer squads will be joined by a pair of Charlotte Warrior squads on the mat at the Cheer Nationals.

The Bandits’ Mitey Mites will compete on Monday at 1:50 p.m., while the Varsity and Pee Wee squads begin on Wednesday at 11:47 a.m. and 2:08 p.m., respectively.

The Warriors’ Junior Pee Wee squad opens competition at 11:17 a.m. on Monday followed by the Warriors’ Junior Varsity at 7:44 p.m. The Warriors Junior Varsity are defending national champions while the JPW squad finished third a year ago.

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