Wolverines football reflects a strong community | Sports
Few high school programs can turn a one-season, one-win scenario into a playoff staple in just one year.
However, the boys’ football team at Tolleson Union High School had the personnel to change the narrative.
In 2003, the Wolverines were unable to attract any footballers to Tolleson, especially when a handful of children opted to play on other, more successful teams. Former coach/current manager Felipe Mandurraga accepted the challenge and spearheaded the rebuild.
While Mandurraga led the program, he quickly changed the varsity team structure and began a string of playoff appearances.
“(Mandurraga) brought a different feel to the team. It wasn’t just about a bunch of kids going out and playing with a ball,” said former player/current college coach Rodrigo Lopez. “It was more structured, and it was more based on what each of us brought to the team. He brought out the best in each player.
The core group of players laid the foundation for the school to retain other players in the region and gradually build a cohesive program.
After seeing gradual progress and making the state playoffs, the Wolverines won the state championship in 2010.
Mandurraga credited the consistent drive tree as one of the pillars of the team’s success.
Once Mandurraga stepped down, his senior assistant took over. This led to another chief assistant taking over and the cycle continued into today’s team.
“I think it’s just the consistent message, this consistent practice that they had in the program,” Mandurraga said. “But the basis behind it all is the mentality that this is Wolverine football: we’re going to win.”
Lopez rose through the ranks in various coaching positions, which allowed him to lead the best football players in Tolleson Union.
The team’s proud tradition continued with numerous semi-finals and second-place finishes. Lopez carries on those memories and experiences in the new batch of Wolverines.
Initially, Lopez was not looking for a coaching job. On the contrary, the post was looking for him. After hearing from a former teammate and friend that Mandurraga was looking for a coach for the newly formed freshman team and was interested, he didn’t give it much thought. Tolleson Union attracted so many new players that a third team was needed so more kids could play.
After accepting the offer to coach the freshman team in 2007, Lopez returned to Tolleson Union and began his coaching career. Being able to expand on the project started by Mandurraga, Lopez is grateful to start at the freshman team level.
Mandurraga recalled a pivotal moment when Lopez was his assistant. Halfway through the season, Lopez argued that a player was better suited in midfield than in defence. Mandurraga pushed back but ultimately took Lopez’s advice.
“I remember that argument very well. It was in the coach’s office, and it was good. It was a fight and it made us better,” Mandurraga said. “So I tell people all the time that you have to surround yourself with good people and listen to them, and I’m glad I did because it made us a better team.”
That year, the team won the state championship.
Wolverine soccer is connected to the community. Lopez is just one example of a player returning to school after graduating.
“We have a lot of families that stay in Tolleson, and a lot of their kids come to play for us,” Lopez said. “They come up to me and they say hello because I used to play with them or go to school with them. They are happy that their children are in the football team, because it goes back several generations.
Going forward, Lopez hopes to reclaim the regional title that recently eluded the Wolverines. They’re also aiming to get past the first round of the playoffs, which has been a roadblock for the team for the past few years.