A couple of hours before the season opener Gilbert Christian football coach Shawn Patterson was looking for a volunteer.
It would be one thing it was for a ball boy, a chain gang worker or someone to step into the concession stand.
It’s another when the coaching is in search for an offensive tackle.
“We had one of our offensive tackles that was supposed to come back from a concussion unable to play,” Patterson said. “He was cleared but his parents didn’t want him to play so two hours before the game so we had to find one.
“So it’s ‘OK, who wants to audition for offensive tackle?’ We put Ben Tabot in there and he did a great job for never having played there before. It’s an intimidating situation. It just one of those challenges where you show your true heart.”
Welcome to Knights’ football as Gilbert Christian transitions from 8-man football to the standard 11-man with a roster listed at 22, but in reality it was more like 15 on game day when it beat San Tan Foothills 37-34 on Friday to improve to 1-1.
Most of the starters were on the field for all 160 total plays in the season opener.
“It’s fun because you always want to get playing time,” senior wide receiver/cornerback Caleb Young said. “Mentally it can be tough at times. The good part is being part of the family and staying mentally tough for your brothers.
“The main point is just be ready an entire game because you are probably going to have to anyway.”
When it became known in December that the program was moving up it was the fulfillment of Patterson’s vision when he started the junior high program in 2009.
He eventually resigned when his son, Cole, decided he wanted to play 11-man and transferred to Williams Field where he played through 2013.
Then when the head coach position came open this offseason, and the program was moving up to 11-man it was only fitting that Patterson came back to the Knights.
“It’s been a very interesting transition,” the coach said. “We always wanted to go 11-man, but with us being a smaller school you are concerned about numbers. It’s always about having enough people to put on the field.”
The biggest difference between the two games – 8-man and 11-man – is field dimension and, of course, the amount of players on the field.
In eight-man the width of the field is 40 feet compared to 53-1/3 of 11-man, while some states also play on an 80-yard length field instead of 100.
The offensive line is three players instead of five and the game is more wide open with fewer players to clog up the running lanes.
The Knights had some success over the last few years, making the playoffs all four and advancing to the semifinals in 2013 and 2014 under Jeff Cain.
The roster grew to 30 last year as the success started to get more players out for the team, but the move to 11-man may have slowed the growth as the team tries to gain footing in the 2A Conference.
The first game came against Pima, an eight-man power also transitioning to 11-man, and the Knights were within 28-24 before the Roughriders scored the three touchdowns to end the game for a 48-24 final.
It was a struggle down the stretch, some do to the fact that most of the players were in the game for every single play, but Patterson was happy with the effort.
He won’t let the expectations of winning become secondary behind a litany of excuses as the Knights make the transition and play in a pretty difficult 2A Metro West Region.
“We are focused on developing every single kid that we have to their fullest potential,” Patterson said. “We now have more people on the field so it’s a good chance to develop more kids.
“We are coming out fighting with high expectations. We are not lowering our expectations. We expect to win every game.”
Gilbert Christian, which was denied an appeal to move the 2A Metro East Region, isn’t the only team making the transition to 11-man.
Chandler Prep is doing the same, but comes with an asterisk. The Titans were traditionally an 8-man team, played 11-man in 2013 and 2014 with a record of 3-17 before dropping back down to 8-man last year.
Now the Chandler Prep is back up to 11-man and won its first two games before losing 39-27 to Phoenix Christian on Friday.
“The seniors are happy to back playing 11-man because they only played 8-man one year,” second-year coach Chris Goodman said. “I think it brought more players out and we have 29 on the roster. We are right where we’re supposed to be.
“We won the first two games decisively, but we have some big dogs coming up especially this week.”
Each week is going to be a challenge for Gilbert Christian as the transition continues and the Knights build roster over the next few years so there isn’t a need to ask for volunteers in the future.
“There are always challenges whether we have a lot of talent or you or low in talent, or have high numbers or low numbers,” Patterson said. “It’s the personality of the team really is the heart. If you can address the heart of the team and make sure that is healthy then you can go anywhere. Pure and simple.”
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