Gilbert Christian opens first football season with high hopes, small numbers - East Valley Tribune: VarsityXtra

Gilbert Christian opens first football season with high hopes, small numbers

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Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2011 5:02 pm | Updated: 4:00 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Gilbert Christian is a basketball school.

The Knights girls and boys teams have combined for four state championships and a runner-up finish since 2007 and don’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

Is there room for a dominant football team on campus, too?

Gilbert Christian certainly has the amenities.

The state-of-the-art weight and locker rooms complement the synthetic turf football field that compares favorably to any high school football playing surface in the state. The Knights played on Campo Verde’s turf last season, but could tell theirs was better.

“At Campo, it still feels like you’re hitting solid concrete,” freshman Tristan Hamlett said.

Said sophomore Nolan Cook: “In eighth grade, we played on just rocks. To change to something like this is amazing.”

In the newly-formed Division VI (eight-man division), Gilbert Christian feels it has a chance to compete immediately in its first year of varsity competition.

The Knights went 7-1 last season on a junior varsity schedule, even though many of their players were only freshmen. The team’s only loss came in a game just two days after their previous one.

“I was so sore,” Cook said.

This season, the team’s core will still be mostly underclassmen, and it’s a group that has played together since fifth grade. For the immediate future, there seems to be promise.

But as the seasons move along, it remains to be seen whether the Knights can be a perennial power.

The biggest question is pure numbers.

Gilbert Christian has an eventual capacity of 400 students, and at this point hasn’t reached half that number. The football team has 17 kids.

“We only have 160-plus kids at the school,” Gilbert Christian coach Jeff Cook said. “A lot of them, if they’re heavy into football, they’re looking at other schools to play. Several of them have moved on to the biggest programs. Unfortunately, we lost those. We would have had a really good chance at competing for state already.”

Therein seems to lie the rub.

The football team has some of the best equipment money can buy, but with schools like Williams Field, Basha and Hamilton nearby, there are questions about whether elite athletes would choose to play for a smaller school.

In an ideal world, Gilbert Christian would get the kids that aren’t quite good enough to start at the other powerhouses, but would be stars in the smaller divisions.

It’s easier to get basketball stars to the school, because two or three elite talents can join forces and make the team very competitive.

In football, overall team depth is almost as important as a stud quarterback.

“For me to play in 11-man (Division V and above), we’d need 30 players,” Jeff Cook said. “Not 17 players. If I’m only getting 16-to-20 players a season we cannot move up.”

The administration at Gilbert Christian foresees a quick rise for the program. With the success of various small private schools in the Phoenix area, it seems quite plausible.

But the economy is putting a wrench in the plans, because if fewer parents can afford to send their child to a private school, the football roster will be smaller. Even though the Knights would love to petition up to play 11-man football in the next two-year block, Jeff Cook isn’t sure if it can happen.

“If they ask us to go to 11-man today, that would just kill them,” he said. “Especially with the size of our kids. We have three or four over 200 pounds on the whole team. If you’re competing with Valley Christian or Northwest Christian, they’ve got lines where they are all over 200, 215 pounds.”

The famous “If you build it, he will come,” line was about baseball, but it’s exactly what the Knights football program is counting on.

They have some of the state’s best facilities. Now they need kids to use them.

“We’ve seen some kids that have shown interest (since arriving at Gilbert Christian), but the good portion are the ones that were interested since fifth or sixth grade,” Jeff Cook said. “We have a few brand new players, and we welcome those very much. We need the numbers.”

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