For the Windermere Wolverines, family and football have been synonyms ever since head football coach Riki Smith joined the team earlier this year.
“As far as the program, I want to (create) a family culture — we’ve got to be a family,” he said. “We have to care for each other. Family is big outside of football; it’s all that matters. So we have to build that family atmosphere, love on each other, trust in each other.”
For junior and defensive tackle Kyle Amer, 16, his desire to play football with the Wolverines started by watching his brother, Amer Amer, play. As such, family has always played a huge part in his years as an athlete for the school.
“We’ve created a more of a family atmosphere among the players,” he said. “So the closer we are, the more we can trust one another to do stuff on the field so we can all play with each other and do better.”
Smith said through this foundation, the Wolverines can begin building a program that will endure.
“We are at the bottom, so let’s just do the right thing — do the little things right over and over again,” Smith said.
Senior and tight end Kyle Silva, 17, believes the new coaching staff has really helped with the team spirit and self-development.
“We are just trying to build everyone together and grow as a team in every position and in all the little things,” he said. “It goes past football, and it goes into the school, too. It’s a building of your self character. The coaches are really funny but also really serious. They are striving to make all of us better, together, as a team. I say team, because it’s all of us — including the coaches.”
Discipline, accountability and love.
“I tell them all the time, I love you, so I’m going to discipline you and hold you accountable,” he said. “That’s all I care about.”
One of the main reasons Smith decided to leave his previous assistant coach position at Dr. Phillips to take the position with the Wolverines was because of his desire to touch the lives of many.
“My whole thought process was: Instead of pouring into six players, my position group, I could pour into 60 players,” he said. “So, instead of changing one or six lives, I could change 60. That was probably the biggest motivation of wanting to be a head coach, changing lives.”
Senior and linebacker Zachary Friend, 17, is one of the four captains of the team and believes this is only the beginning of a whole new team.
“I love what Coach Smith is doing; he’s a really good coach,” he said. “I think he’s going to build something. I’m a senior, but hopefully, he’s going to build a foundation for the younger guys so, if I come back in eight years, they’ll be a great team.”
However, gaining his players’ trust and getting them to buy into the program didn’t happen in one day — and even though there’s progress, it’s still a work in progress.
“It was a drastic change at the beginning, because they weren’t used to my expectations,” Smith said. “It was tough, a lot of guys quit, but the ones (who) stayed — they fell in line, and (the program) is definitely moving in the right direction. I have high expectations from the players and the program. I’m not going to meet them halfway, so they are going to have to meet me.”
Smith considers himself a players’ coach and relies on his ability to relate to his players to get them to buy in.
“Especially in this generation, you have to be able to relate with the kids,” he said. “They need to know that you care about them, each of them — individually. Show that you care about them, love them, but at the same time, discipline them. There’s a fine line between being a coach and having a good relationship (with them), and being their friend. I’m not their friend, I’m their coach who cares about them, loves them and treats them like sons.”
Senior and linebacker Javier Garcia, 17, and junior and kicker Lucas Glassburn, 17, believe the team has become a brotherhood.
“On the field is stronger, because we all know what we have to do, and then we always sit down and talk about what we have to do,” Garcia said. “This season will be the start of a new legacy, because we have a lot of young guys that are playing so they are going to have a new mentality so it’s definitely going to be better.”
Regarding the new-look coaching staff, Smith’s vision was to bring in coaches who have the same energy, physicality and toughness than him, as well as the same mindset.
For senior and defensive end Christopher Maurice, 17, that all translates to a better vibe.
“I’ve been able to see my full potential and give my all for the team,” he said. “I always go 110%, but with this team especially, and this being my senior year, I have to go all out.”
Currently on both defense and offense, the Wolverines are working on physicality.
“Defense wins championships, so defensively our main goal is to stop the run and play with passion and physicality,” Smith said. “Offensively, we have to take what the opponent gives us, attack weaknesses and score points.”
However, because several of the players had never played football prior to becoming Wolverines, the coaching of the team has had its challenges.
“It’s teaching; it really is,” Smith said. “It’s teaching for the players that are new to the game of football and, at the same time, it’s a lot of coaching for the players that have played and understand the game.”
For twin seniors and defensive/offensive line, respectively, Remi and Aidan Kopman, 17, leadership means being a team player.
“It’s not about bossing everybody around; it’s more just picking everybody up when their heads are down and telling them, ‘Good job,’” Aidan Kopman said.
Junior and defensive end and wide receiver Anthony Rosier, 16, and junior and running back and corner Isaiah Nell, 16, are looking forward to earning some wins prior to the end of the season.
“We’ve got to lock in every game; we’ve got to believe in every game that we are going to come out strong,” Rosier said.
Becoming a Wolverine was definitely a change for the former Panthers coach, but it was a challenge Smith embraced — and one he believes is worth it.
“Adversity is opportunity in disguise,” Smith said. “Toughness is built through adversity. … We know this job has been an adversity. I’m the sixth coach in six years. So, I knew it was going to be challenging, but at the same time, I’m a competitor. You take the challenge, don’t make excuses and just keep working. You’ve got to give everything you’ve got, no regrets, maximum effort, and I feel like if you do the little things right, all the time, over and over again, eventually good things are going to happen for you. I knew that, I am embracing it and we’re going to keep moving forward, keep chopping wood, keep working, keep pushing. There’s no looking into the past, we are looking forward, just trying to build.”