A string of strong seasons for the group that now makes up the East Manatee Bulldogs youth football organization's U14 team shows great potential when eventually feeding local high school teams.
In 2023, these athletes put all the pieces together. The Bulldogs, who play in Division I of the Tampa Bay Pop Warner conference, went 10-0. On Oct. 27, the team captured its conference championship with a 28-8 win over the Manatee Wildcats.
During the eight-game regular season, the team's defense — designed by Head Coach Michael Monserez — did not allow opposing offenses to score. The offense was also impressive, scoring 262 points over those eight games, or approximately 33 points per game. The combination of both units being elite made the Bulldogs a nightmare for opponents.
Coordinator James Abelson runs the team's offense and works with many of the team's skill position players, offense and defense, during the offseason through his Nextlevelz training program. Abelson said the success the team has had in 2023 is no accident. It has come through the players fully committing themselves to the team in a way that is rare for kids at the U14 level.
"We ask a lot of them, not only physically during practice but mentally as well," Abelson said. "That's part of the reason they have had so much success this season. They understand what's going on. They are learning the game and they know the 'why' behind everything we do."
That 'why' includes things such as how blocking opens a lane for a running back, or how a receiver's route can open up another receiver.
Abelson said he wants his players to be ready for whatever the next step in their football life might be. For some, that will mean high school ball. Others will return to the Bulldogs for another season, where they will be expected to become leaders and carry more responsibility. Still others won't return to football at all, electing to spend their free time on other things. Whatever the case, Abelson said, the coaching staff wants to help them prepare for it.
"I want to make sure we have done everything we can to make them better human beings," Abelson said. "Make them tougher. Make them more aware. We want to create a culture that is special for these kids. When you look back on things, you don't remember every catch you made in youth ball, but you remember the culture and how much fun you had."
In talking with Bulldogs players, the fun they are having is apparent. Jace Kornett, a cornerback, praised the team's coaching staff for always getting the defensive backs in the right position to succeed.
Every practice carries the same balance of learning and enjoyment, Kornett said. He said his favorite moment of the season was the conference championship win, partially because of getting to hold the trophy, and partially because of getting to dump Gatorade on the coaches — a sign of both joy and respect.
He said the players trust each other to do their job. He said that is how the Bulldogs defense has been so successful. The less mistakes they make, the less opportunities for opposing offenses to exploit. In the secondary, the Bulldogs mostly played man-to-man defense, because they had the talent to hold up against the other players.
Bulldogs quarterback Nick Monserez, the head coach's son, said the team's philosophy has been the same all season. Start fast. If the team can score on its first possession, then the defense can get a stop — or vice versa — the team feels good about its chances to win.
On the rare occasion that has not happened, Nick Monserez said, no one panics.
The championship game was one of those times. Nick Monserez, who is in his final year with the Bulldogs before heading to Cardinal Mooney High, said the offense was not as clean as it usually is. That included his interception. But the players never lost faith, and were able to wear down Manatee as the game went along.
"I trust them," Nick Monserez said of his defensive teammates. "I'm able to go out there and do my best. If I don't get it done, I know (the defensive players) have my back and they will pick me up."
I played youth football for three seasons as a fullback before electing to focus on baseball. My teams never reached the level that East Manatee has reached, but the lessons my teams learned were similar. It gave me thicker skin and taught me the importance of teamwork. I don't remember every touchdown I scored — there were a handful, believe it or not — but I remember commiserating with my teammates while running drills, and getting praise from the coaching staff for setting a block exactly like they taught me to spring someone else's touchdown.
Likewise, these Bulldogs will remember this season for a long time. The on-field accomplishments are nice, but where this season takes them as people will be even more impactful.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.