Semi-pro football coming to Kitsap County

"Larry Bell never had been a head football coach, although he'd been associated with the game for more than a quarter century.But when the opportunity came to coach the West Sound Orcas, the new semi-professional team that will call Bremerton home beginning later this spring, Bell was quick to jump at the chance.They called me, said Bell, 53, who has coached at levels from the Pee Wees to semi-pro programs in other states, as well as working as a weight training and conditioning coach for a number of college and pro players. I was basically out of coaching, working on other things, when this came along. I saw it as an opportunity to work with people in a pure amateur setting.Bell will build the onfield product for the Northwest Football League (NWFL) expansion franchise from an abundant pool of local players, both homegrown and transplants. Informal practices this spring, publicized almost exclusively by word of mouth, have drawn up to four dozen hopefuls.But construction of the franchise itself actually began months ago, when a local player-enterpreneur named Matt Gates began pushing the NWFL to bring semipro ball back to the Kitsap Peninsula. Gates then was introduced to Silverdale-based developer Jim Wootan, who broached the subject of forming a board of directors and taking on the business end of the franchise.Matt did all the legwork to get this thing started, starting back in October or November, Wootan said. I held off getting involved for a while, but when I could tell this thing was for real, I told Matt, 'You go play football and win games, and I'll take care of the rest.'It was sort of awkward for me, said Gates, who played high school football in California, but has been relegated to recreational flag leagues since coming to Bremerton while serving in the Navy. I want to be involved, but I want to play a couple years, too.Jim was very conservative about it at first, but when he saw there was a desire to have this here, he stepped up big time, Gates said. I think he's doing a real swell job.Getting enough quality players to fill the roster (Bell said he plans to carry about 50) doesn't appear to be a problem. Interested players still are encouraged to contact Bell (275-5526) to inquire about practice times.Wootan knows that getting enough spectators in the seats at Bremerton Memorial Stadium could be a much bigger problem.We are going to be on probation (with the NWFL) our first year, he said. If nobody's coming out to the games, there's go guarantee they're going to be interested in us after that.Hopes are high, however, that a semipro team in Bremerton can become a goin' concern - both as a competitive and as a business entity.Gates began running informal practices last winter - just some guys throwing the ball around on Sundays, he called it. But things have expanded quite a bit, to three practices a week under the supervision of Bell and his staff.We were going to try taping their names to the fronts of their jerseys, Bell said of the turnout. There's some local guys, some guys that are here because of the Navy, and some guys who live here but used to play for other teams.Most of them work a 40-hour week in addition to this, Bell continued of the players. They're here because they love to play. It's that character that makes this a totally different realm (from the college and pro ranks).Wootan also gave the players their due, saying, They're here for the heart and the fun, not for the money.Like the NWFL's other teams, the Orcas are a non-profit entity. Proceeds from their games will find their way back into the community.But there is some motivation for playing besides simple love of the game. Some players still harbor hopes of earning roster spots in the Arena Football League or with one of the NFL's European franchises. Playing in the well-established NWFL, which has been in existence with varying degrees of success since the early 1970s, offers an opportunity to showcase their talents.For whatever reason, a lot of these guys just never went on, Gates said of the NWFL talent pool. This gives them a chance to do that.Semipro football isn't completely new to the Kitsap Peninsula, but it has been a generation since the Kitsap Chiefs called Bremerton Memorial Stadium home.But there is some tradition at work. Robert Mulligan, one of the coaches of the Chiefs, will be Bell's offensive coordinator with the Orcas.They had some success here before, Wootan said of the Orcas' predecessors. There's no reason we can't be successful, too."

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