Gilroy’s last practice before a scrimmage in Carmel had just ended.
Players kneel in concentric semi-circles listening to final critiques from that day’s run. It’s a tradition after every practice and after every game. A final look at how they did, a final pat on the back for a job well done or a final bit of encouragement if results fell short of expectations.
It is this time where coaches say the words that most stick with players and gives them a purpose to fight harder in practice or the game the next day.
On this day it was no different. The Mustangs knelt listening to their coaches.
Just as every other day, except not.
The next day, Gilroy would see an old rival in one final tune up before the season starts in San Jose at Overfelt. And on this day, the Mustangs remembered the history blazoned on their chests.
Their assistant coach told them Gilroy was known as a school of working class, blue collar, something to prove players. They were the players who hit harder, hit more and left opponents wondering if they wanted to be hit again.
Gilroy isn’t the biggest school, the coach reminded them, but they would be the school that no one wanted to mess with. Go out there, he said, and hit until that whistle blows and make them want to not be hit again.
That hesitation would open holes and allow plays to explode from four yards and a cloud of dust to the big 20-plus-yard gains that break teams’ wills.
The message may have been one that the players have heard before, but it is a message that they take note of.
“That reminds me of my brother,” said Spenser Soares. “My brother was the last DI to come out of Gilroy, that was in 2012 with Jordan Soares. I always think we’re a good team but he brings up the fact that they were a better division. So when he (the coach) was talking about the old Gilroy, it really got my blood flowing because I think about my brother and I think about the past Gilroy I remember when I came out here as a little kid and being so excited seeing the Hollister-Gilroy game or the Christopher-Gilroy game.”
It was that attitude that a year ago led the Mustangs to within one minute of a league title and eventually to a semi-finals appearance in the CCS playoffs.
And really it was an attitude of trust.
The team rallied behind coach Jubenal Rodriguez a year ago after going a dismal 3-7 overall in 2015. The team—and the coach—admits attitudes were not great back then and the following summer, Rodriguez asked his boys to take a leap of faith and it paid off.
Now the team sees what trusting in the process means.
Gilroy stepped it up this summer and the results should pay off.
“I think we’re a pretty strong unit. I think last year made us stronger, more united. We learned more; we were a pretty young team last year,” said lineman Gabriel Santos. “So now in this year, we’re trying to exceed expectations like last year and maybe even play better.”
Santos said every aspect of the game, he’s seeing his teammates get better and thinks this could be a special year.
Most importantly up front Gilroy is going to be a little bigger.
“That’s the thing, with our size, we’ve never really been big. We’ve had a couple of big guys, but we’ve always been small, so because of our workouts, we’re strong,” Soares said. “We know how to push back, we know how to make a hit and we definitely will make a hit this year.”
For the most part, the line is returning, with a notable exception of the center. But Gilroy has seen some good competition for that role among two guys who seem to have the snapping duties locked down.
That will come in handy as Gilroy’s main attack in Joe Barnes, Jon Castro and the rest of the ground game is back to continue the speed and power game that Gilroy is known for.
Barnes is returning after amassing 1,633 yards on 187 carries through 12 games with Castro averaging 6.1 yards per carry last year.
Soares said Castro has really worked on his throwing and has gotten much getter. He said he has known Castro since they were little and right now as seniors, this is a fun time to look back at where they’ve come from.
“Me and him have been going since Day 1. We’ll grind it out. I expect a lot from him,” Soares said. “He’s staying in the pocket now. His arm has gotten a lot better. I can’t wait. Defensively and offensively, we’re ready.”
Soares said Castro has two quality targets in Max Pierce and Braulio Rodriguez, noting they now have “height and hands” to throw to down field.
Coach Rodriguez said he has taken notice of running back/free safety Christian Rodriguez and cornerback/runningbackRichard Perez over the summer and they have both filled in nicely.
“Those guys have been some of the most consistent guys we’ve had over the summer and are very talented on the field. They both play both ways and have definitely stepped up in a new leadership role.
What Gilroy brings back offensively, plus a more experienced defense led by guys like Rodriguez, Perez, Barnes, Soares and others, has forced teams to take notice that last year wasn’t a fluke and attention is starting to be more focused on the Mustangs.
The trick for the coaching staff and the players has been to stay humble this summer and attempt to avoid buying into the hype being generated around the team.
“I think a lot of guys don’t know about the hype so it doesn’t affect us,” Santos said. “We’re just trying to do the same thing as last year or even get more wins as last year.”
Gilroy will kick things off with two road games right off the bat against teams that should give them a strong indication of just how good the Mustangs are going to be this season.
Opening the season will be Overfelt who was tri-champs of the Blossom Valley Athletic League-West Valley Division last year and sported a 6-4 overall record, just missing a berth into the CCS playoffs.
That will be followed by perineal powerhouse Carmel, who’s perfect season a year ago was upended by Sacred Heart Prep in the opening round of the CCS playoffs after Aptos opted to go up to the Open Division-III.
Gilroy will return home to host Live Oak and Harbor before launching into league play against Alisal on Sept. 22.
The game plan is no different than any other year: Execute the plays against the team that is in front of you. But this year because other teams know what Gilroy has to offer, there is an added emphasis to the deal.
“We just have to play to perfection: Just follow the game plan and try to play to as close to perfect as we can,” Santos said. “We have to play with a lot of aggressiveness because there’s a lot of good teams this year that are ready to challenge us.”
League play will be an interesting affair as Christopher—who has won the last six meetings between the two schools—is now down in the Pacific Division.
With the departure of last year’s champion Seaside, Gilroy and Christopher are the early favorites to capture the Pacific title.
But remaining includes Alisal, which Gilroy needed a last-minute drive to finally beat in the league opener.
That game will lead off the league season for the Mustangs.
Gilroy’s last practice before a scrimmage in Carmel had just ended.