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Gila Ridge football off to historic start

Devin Graham celebrates a fumble recovery against Brawley As the first quarter ticked away during Gila Ridge football’s opening night of the 2019 season, the scoreboard might as well have been unplugged.

The Hawks trailed Brawley High by two touchdowns. The premier act for new head coach Jae Ellegood was teetering on disaster. Ellegood said things felt discombobulated. But as the first-year coach looked around the sideline, panic was distant for everyone else.

“Heads were still high and my coaches were saying, ‘Alright, let’s do this. We still got this. We’re fine,’” Ellegood said.

Fine they were. The Hawks rallied, their ever-stout defense holding the Wildcats to just six points the rest of the way, and their historic season was suddenly underway.

“It helped a lot with my confidence to know as a coach that what we are doing is working,” Ellegood said about that opening, 28-19, win. “And we did come back, our defense stood up, and we won. That’s when I could say that our culture change was headed in the right direction.”

Since their debut varsity season in 2008, the Hawks have had their share of success. Prior to Ellegood’s arrival they had five winning seasons, two postseason appearances, and built an especially deep program over the past two years.

Still, 2019 has been an extraordinary jump. With a stable of seniors, many of whom have started since their sophomore season, the Hawks raced off to the first 8-0 start since Yuma Union High School District added a second school in 1959. Over that 60-year stretch, YUHSD has seen three teams compile 9-1 records, with Gila Ridge’s chief rival Cibola, in 2010, the last to do so.

“Obviously, being undefeated helps with buy-in from the players,” Ellegood said of the team’s historic start. “The challenge I had was that they did see some success. The previous coach (Corey Semler) did a very good job in taking this senior class when they were sophomores and, maybe some of them weren’t ready, but he had the vision of this year.”

The vision was that the early experience for those sophomores would pay off in the long run. The team showed promise a year ago, winning six games in a row, and holding opponents to three points or fewer in half of those victories. But they lost consecutive heartbreakers to close the season, missing out on a league title, a city title, and ultimately the third playoff berth in school history.  

“Most of the starters have been together for three years. Now, we are all seniors, and we are just extremely excited to be together, with how much talent we have, and how well we play together,” Gila Ridge quarterback Kaleb Cota said. “We don’t like to lose. In past years, we had the section championship on the line and lost that one and then we had the city championship on the line and lost that one. It makes it easier to play for each other because we hate to lose.”

Kaleb Cota on the sideline for GRHS Encouraging a work ethic that coincides with a hatred for defeat has been another part of Ellegood’s challenge as a new coach. He has held his players accountable, but, perhaps, most importantly, the coaching staff has implored the student-athletes to hold each other accountable. They regularly participate in team-bonding events following conditioning on Wednesdays, including improvisation games. They eat team dinners and breakfasts, and spend time together away from the field.

“We are playing for each other instead of playing for ourselves,” lineman Erick Flores said.

“We always sit together at lunch. We hang out with each other after school,” defensive end Devin Graham added. “It’s the bond we’ve had for all these years.”

There’s something to be said for the way the team has gelled from the summer to the early fall. It shows in the offensive balance. They have a 1,000-yard rusher in bruising lead back Renan Duarte. They have three receivers with 20-plus catches in Jaden Delorme, David Randle, and sophomore Jonathan Noriega. And Cota, in his second year as the starting quarterback, is averaging two touchdown passes per game.

“It’s definitely balanced,” Cota said. “Way more balanced than any year before. We’re finally coming together as one big team.”

While the skill position players often get top billing, Gila Ridge’s success has been predicated on controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Duarte needed just eight games to surpass his yardage total from a year ago, in part, because the offensive line has been so effective. The group consists of four seniors, including Flores and the 6-foot-4, 335-pound Thomas Long.

Likewise, the defensive line has produced at a school-record pace. They recorded 10 sacks in a 41-0 road win over Lake Havasu. They’ve averaged nearly four sacks per game overall with Wyatt Robinson moving into double figures ahead of Graham and Taylor Diebert. It helps also that athletic linebacker D’Angelo Jackson is a disruptive force against the run and the pass. He can cover the field laterally, rush the passer, and support the front four in the run game. Through eight games Jackson leads the team in tackles, has an interception, and eight tackles for loss.

“They’re monsters,” Ellegood said of the Hawks’ defense. “We tweaked some things after the first two games. My defensive coaches have bought into what they’re doing and working together. They’re super competitive and they hate losing.”

And that’s arguably the theme of the season for the Hawks. They are meticulous about winning, and improving. “Every win doesn’t feel like a win sometimes because we are so critical of ourselves, and trying to get better,” Cota said.

Ellegood elaborated: “It feels like we are losing sometimes when we are so critical of ourselves, but it’s to make ourselves better. And they are really starting to see that.”

GRHS football lines up along side during anthem After the Havasu game, the team’s sixth consecutive win, Ellegood walked into the locker room and someone on the roster had written “0-0” on the whiteboard, meaning the team had unfinished business ahead of them. He smiled. It was then that he knew much of what he had been selling the team on for months had officially sunk in.

“As a head coach my big thing is the culture, trying to build a good culture that people want to be a part of,” Ellegood said. “I want people to be a part of Gila Ridge, I want them feeling like they want to be a part of Gila Ridge football.”

Winning at an historic pace helps, but this Gila Ridge season has illuminated much more than wins and losses, goal-line stands and opening night comebacks.  

Eric Patten