Six years ago, Derek Zellner was made the head football coach at Gilbert High School. Joining a squad coming off a 2-9 season, he noticed that optimism was hard to find among his players.
“The mindset to the group before 2015 was they looked at their schedule and they were already beat on Monday before they even got to the game on Friday,” Zellner said.
Zellner looked to change that perspective. He told his team that no matter how difficult their opponent was, each game will benefit the Tigers in the long run.
It took two seasons, but Zellner’s words came true as Gilbert achieved a first playoff berth. The Tigers proceeded to earn a postseason bid the following two seasons and would have in 2020 if the playoffs were not reduced from 16 to eight teams.
Yet, Zellner’s squad has not won a postseason game. That is the next step of his plan to turn Gilbert into a contender for the 5A Division title.
“When we first got here seven years ago to where we are now, we’re slowly chipping away,” Zellner said. “The goal that we’ve set forth now is let’s not just make the playoffs. Let’s win a playoff game because if we can win a playoff game, we got an opportunity to win another playoff game.”
Gilbert’s formula to earning its first postseason victory under Zellner includes combining veteran players with a coaching staff well-versed in football knowledge and experience.
Of the 45-50 players projected to play varsity this season, more than 30 will be juniors and 13 are seniors. According to Zellner, many of the juniors are experienced thanks to playing time as sophomores or spot time as freshmen.
One of the team’s juniors in 2021 is running back and outside linebacker Cooper Zellner. The second of Zellner’s three sons — Wyatt, who played at Gilbert, is a linebacker at Linfield University in Oregon and Crew is in fifth grade — Cooper said he enjoys interacting with his father as his coach.
“You get that extra experience to learn from him,” Cooper said. “It’s nice to be able to have him as an idol.”
For Zellner, it is a special opportunity to continue the father-son bond with Cooper.
When he was nine years old, Zellner’s father passed away from cancer. His mother raised him, as well as the “extended branches” of the coaches that he played for. Zellner has aspired to create a similar impact on his sons, as well as his entire team.
When coaching the Tigers, he not only wants to spend time with the players. Zellner educates them on what it means to be a good person, husband and father and how to use football skills learned at Gilbert to be successful later in life.
He also has an entire coaching staff behind him who bring their own lessons and perspectives to the Tigers.
“Coach Z gives us a great opportunity to just be a defensive coach,” linebackers coach Chris Singleton said. “Hands off, he lets us do what we want to do and how we want to run our defense.”
Singleton brings a wealth of perspective to Gilbert. A former linebacker and captain at the University of Arizona, he played eight years in the National Football League with the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins. When Singleton met Zellner, he was inspired to join the coaching ranks. Today, he is committed to staying in Gilbert “for a long time” to help turn the program around.
Part of the experience Singleton brings is qualities of leadership from his time mentoring young players and setting the standard in practice and the weight room as a captain. Meanwhile, Quenton Maag adds knowledge garnered from the sidelines of the Pacific Northwest.
A graduate assistant at Washington State under Mike Leach, Maag serves as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator and a key part of the Tigers’ changing culture. Maag was told by Zellner that he is the first defensive coordinator in recent years to stay at Gilbert for two years in a row.
With Singleton in his third season, Zellner’s longtime colleague Ben Patrick as the offensive coordinator and nearly the entire coaching staff from 2020 returning, Maag believes Gilbert has the consistency to be successful.
Combining that consistency with a unique culture could be the key to future success.
“Part of the reason I came here… they’re changing the culture from losing to trying to get over the hump of winning,” Maag said. “You have to get that mentality of winning. For the longest time here, it was ‘Don’t Lose.’ Now, we’re trying to change that into winning and that’s why we’re hovering around .500.”
That mentality is impacting players such as Cooper.
“We really have to step up our game and prove to people that we can do it,” he said. “We have nothing to lose. What’s the point of going out to a game scared or going out and thinking ‘What if we lose?’”
Gilbert’s 2021 schedule includes matchups against back-to-back division champions Mesquite, Saguaro and Notre Dame Prep. Zellner is hoping that dozens of fans will be in the stands for the squad’s five home contests.
Unlike in 2015, facing some of the top teams in the East Valley will not be a negative experience for Gilbert. Instead, these games will provide Zellner and his squad with opportunities to continue changing the narrative around the Tigers football program.
The optimism is there at East Elliot Road. Gilbert is ready to achieve the victory that it has been chasing for so long.
“Let’s kick that door down,” Zellner said. “Let’s get into winning a playoff game and then see what can happen from there.”