Tigers - Gilbert players

Gilbert players such as Cooper Zellner have stepped up to the plate to help the team remain focus on put past games behind them. That has worked so far for the Tigers.

Head coach Derek Zellner of the Gilbert Tigers always preaches to his players, “don’t make a bad play a disaster.” This has been an omen for the Tigers season as they started the year off 0-2. 

After losing in Week 1 to Desert Mountain 34-7 and falling to Mesquite 20-0 in Week 2, the Tigers went into practice understanding that they have work to do. However, they are ultimately prepared for the difficult road ahead. 

The mood in practice was described by senior center Carson Bryce as very encouraging and the energy was a lot higher than usual. 

Zellner knows the team can compete at a high level but feels that they are shooting themselves in the foot and the constant turnovers are the main cause of their downfall. 

Despite these mistakes, giving up is not an option for Zellner or the Tigers and they have all still been working extremely hard. 

“We have had a tough couple of weeks, but we have fought through everything, and fought until the very last whistle. If you watch the game, you will see that,” said senior wide receiver and safety Evan Smith. “We never gave up. We had each other’s back. Yes, things are not going to go our way once in a while, but you get back on the field. And once we get between the white lines, we are a family again.’’ 

A football season is filled with high and low points which the Tigers are fully aware of. Bryce says that the team knows that they need to put their recent struggles aside, keep their heads held high and push forward. 

Not only do the Tigers remain confident in themselves but they also view their recent losses in a positive way to a certain degree. 

“With every loss there is some sort of educational benefit that you are going to get out of it,” said Zellner. “What we can fix is what we did badly and try to improve on what we do offensively, and what we do defensively with our special team.” 

Fixing is exactly what the Tigers tried to do as they watched film in the early stages of practice and nit-picked every play on the field. Zellner has been supportive of the team but also shows a bit of tough love making sure his team improves and does not commit the same mistakes again. 

While fixing up their blunders from weeks prior, the team has stayed united. This is largely due to the strong friendships they have built with each other as a result of going to war for one another. 

Family and comradery are something Zellner has preached ever since he arrived at Gilbert in 2015. That has been the key to the success of this football team. 

“That’s one thing we have done a better job of since I came in 2015. We have tried to become a more family-oriented team whereas before I’m not really sure what took place,” Zellner said. “But that was one of our main goals coming in that we had to be tighter as a unit. 

“So, you will do whatever it takes for the guy in front of you, behind you or wherever it may be. That full trust lets you know you can really rely on him, and he can really rely on you.” 

By believing in each other and staying united as a group, the Tigers have been able to remain calm and positive during a tough stretch for their team. Their mindset is not to let a couple losses demoralize them but instead look forward to the football that is left to be played this season. 

Since the Tigers are such a tight knit group, each player does not look at their individual stats but play for each other and have been focusing on how they can get better as a collective unit. The team is able to bond off the field by going to team dinners together and making sure to keep in contact with one another when they are separated. 

Through the week of practice, the Gilbert players and coaching staff have stayed focused on the goal of making the playoffs. They are aware what that would mean not only to themselves but to the school. 

“If we made it to the playoffs and who knows maybe made it to States, I feel like it would be a huge moral boost to the school and bring more kids there into the football program in Gilbert,” Bryce added. “We need it since we are not such a big team.” 

Zellner believes that because of the Tigers’ difficult schedule, by the end of the season that his team will ultimately deserve a spot in the playoffs. 

A hard path in the regular season boosted Gilbert to the playoffs in seasons past and this year has helped them become more prepared for challenges that lie ahead of them. 

“We just have to worry about this week and the goal is to go 1-0,” Zellner says, “We just take one game at a time. We can’t look ahead. We can’t look behind because there is nothing we can do by looking ahead and nothing we can do about the previous games.” 

Remy Mastey is a sports journalism student at Arizona State University covering Gilbert High School athletics.