The children standing in front of Jose Ulloa stand at ease as they listen to instructions.
It’s a week into practice for the different Horizon West Wolverines youth football teams, and they’re still taking in the basics.
“All of y’all look at the quarterback — quarterback you look at me,” Ulloa said. “We have to make that perfect snap every time. If we can’t get that snap, we are going to lose all the time ... let’s go.”
The sound of coaches speaking loudly as they emphasize certain techniques can be heard echoing from each huddled group that splotches the grass field behind LifeBridge Church in Windermere.
From the sidelines, parents watch as their children toss around footballs and work on their tackling form, while Nick Torani — the sports director of the whole operation — paces around from team to team.
This organization, which kicked off last year, is an extension of Torani’s family — both metaphorically, and sort of of literally when you consider the physical space it takes up at home.
“If you saw my house right now, it’s got boxes and my wife deals with a lot too, because a lot of the stuff that ships to us is in our house, and we have to store it,” Torani said. “My house — this weekend — basically threw up Riddell.”
And not only is his house loaded down with boxes, but also the two vehicles he brought to the practice on Monday, Aug. 5, had football helmets stashed in the back.
Torani said he would do whatever he could to help the children who play in the Wolverines’ signature green and blue. The question of why he does it is completely rhetorical.
“For the kids — why not? It’s a community,” Torani said. “For instance, at the kickoff we talked about community at the end — Coach Priest got up and talked about starting our organization and the community. Then (there’s the) chant of ‘1-2-3-Wolverines-4-5-6-Community,’ and that’s what it is.
“I come from a very tight community where I’d love to see these kids get academic and sports scholarships,” he said.
BUILDING A PROGRAM
Things got off to a bit of a tough start for Torani and the Horizon West Wolverines.
After holding their first kickoff with Windermere High School in March 2018, Torani and the Wolverines participated in a flag football season with the Mid-Florida Football Conference — which didn’t go so well.
So then the Wolverines tried their first attempt at putting on tackle football. It, too, didn’t go anywhere, so Torani decided to try some other things.
“We didn’t have that many kids sign up — we still weren’t very well known — and then we kind of scratched that (tackle football) and did a free 10-week football clinic (that was from mid-August to late September),” Torani said. “Then we had our inaugural flag football season in the fall of last year and then had a second flag football season that started in January and went until early March.”
A month later, in April of this year, the Wolverines once again put on their football clinic, and this time something seemed to have clicked within the community.
Around 90% of the children who made their way out to the clinic ended up signing up for tackle football in what would be the organization’s first real success.
“If you saw my house right now, it’s got boxes and my wife deals with a lot too, because a lot of the stuff that ships to us is in our house, and we have to store it. My house — this weekend — basically threw up Riddell.”
— Nick Torani
The added exposure has seen the 12U team max out at 26 children while the 14U team still has a couple of openings. The other divisions (8U, 10U) are still looking for more children.
But the real question is, “What was it that changed following the clinic?” The answer, for Torani, is a simple one.
“We’re organized and we run stuff on time — what we tell our parents actually happens,” Torani said with a laugh. “One big thing for me is that we start on time, and we end on time. When school starts we go three days a week from 5:45 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. — at 7:15 I tell my coaches, ‘I don’t give a crap where you are in practice, when 7:15 comes around and I blow the whistle, we are done.’
“Kids need to get home; they need to get homework done, they need to eat a good meal; they need to get their rest and they need to get their family time,” he said.
While the product has grown on the field, the organization still is trying to find its footing in the other aspects of growing a program — primarily as it relates to funding and exposure.
A lot of the Wolverines’ marketing comes from social media — especially Facebook — while funding comes from a couple of sponsors, and Torani’s own wallet. Many of the parents also kick in where they can — whether that be buying ice or equipment.
“The parents have been fantastic,” Torani said.
THE FIRST SEASON
The Wolverines don’t have long to wait for the start of their inaugural regular season.
They will finally get their day in the sun on Saturday, Aug. 24, as they take to the field for the first time as a team.
It’s an exciting time for these young players, and for those such as 12-year-old Michael Dove, it’s a chance to play the game he loves.
“I just like the game a lot — I started playing when I was 8 years old,” Dove said. “I like just putting work in and playing with my friends and having fun.”
While Dove and the others are on the field having fun, Torani and the coaches for the Wolverines will take to the sidelines — watching and taking in everything they’ve worked so hard to build.
“It’s about the kids — it’s the satisfaction that I want them to enjoy themselves, and I want them to have fun and I want them to learn discipline,” Torani said. “That’s where I get the most enjoyment out of it.”