By Zach Alvira, GSN Sports Editor
One by one, the Gilbert High football players walk onto the practice field behind the stadium. In helmets only, they file into lines, all three dozen of them, to begin warm ups.
Their shoulder pads lie on the sideline, where they remain most of practice.
“This is just who we are and it is what we have to do,” Gilbert coach Derek Zellner said. “It’s not easy, but we figure out how to do it. We don’t let them beat each other up all week long and instead do it on Friday.”
Competing in 5A – the second-largest division in the state based on enrollment – the Tigers have just 36 players on their varsity roster. That makes it difficult to practice offense and defense every day before a game because many players must play on both sides of the ball.
They make it work.
“We literally go into the game with one day of preparation on each side of the ball,” said Gilbert defensive coordinator Brandon Johnson. “They have to learn two playbooks every week. It says a lot about these guys’ toughness and their conditioning.”
Having played in the NFL for eight seasons, Johnson knows what type of preparation is needed to compete at the highest level consistently. His coaching style is to hold every one of his players to the highest standard.
They’re responding to the challenge.
Through five weeks, linebacker Ray Vega stood atop 5A in total tackles (58), averaging more than 11 per game. Vega played a major role in the Tigers’ 3-2 record against difficult competition.
Like most of his teammates, Vega does it with very little rest.
The senior also lines up at running back in the Tigers’ offense, providing a safety outlet for quarterback Will Plummer, and plays on special teams. That makes it difficult for him to catch a break on game day.
He’s is prepared for it.
“Playing both ways really makes you tired, so you have to make sure to get extra work in,” Vega said. “Our preparation during the week is top notch, I think. Our coaches put us in the best position every week.”
Vega’s success was years in the making. The senior has battled injuries throughout his career.
Johnson knows that Vega has the ability to compete at a higher level, but Johnson said playing both ways has hampered that.
“He is playing very well and he could be even better if he didn’t have to play on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Johnson said. “He is a phenomenal talent. We are just trying to keep him from being fatigued.”
Also among the top five in tackles in 5A is senior defensive back Marco Meza.
Not only does Meza have 45 tackles, he has added 270 receiving yards and three touchdowns on offense.
The senior is accustomed to performing at a high level on both sides. That comes with the territory at Gilbert.
“If someone gets injured, most schools can just throw someone in,” Meza said. “For us, we have to find players that can play both ways. But we find a way to do it.”
Meza remains focused on the ultimate team goal: Make the playoffs.
Gilbert last made the playoffs in 2010, losing in the second round to Desert Ridge. To be able to say he helped the team end that skid would mean everything to Meza and his fellow seniors.
“All of us, we all want to make the playoffs really bad,” Meza said. “That’s motivating us right now.”
The Tigers’ have a rough schedule ahead, facing strong 5A foes Williams Field, Higley, Casteel and Maricopa.
Gilbert is accustomed to being overlooked. In fact, the Tigers thrive on it and use it as motivation.
“They want to win,” Zellner said. “I always tell them, let’s not get a foot in the door, let’s kick the entire door down and get into the playoffs.
“That’s the goal.”