There’s a level of comradery that is established within every football program between players and coaches.
Most of the time, that comes during the grueling off-season workouts, when teams spend hours together in the weight room, on the field, in 7 on 7 and big man tournaments and at camp – often a three-day or more retreat up north or in California for teams in the East Valley. They build relationships, many of which often last well beyond their high school years.
There’s also a small percentage of players who build those relationships before high school in local youth leagues. But it can be rare – especially outside of small, rural towns – for them to remain together on the same team for several years after the fact. That’s what makes the relationship some seniors on the Gilbert football team have with each other unique.
They grew up together.
“We’ve been together for almost 12 years,” senior Carter Dickie said. “It’s been a good time. It’s been a long time. We’ve got some good team chemistry because of that.”
Dickie, Cooper Zellner, Jacob Barnes, Ethan Greenberg and Patrick Hechtle all got their start with the Gilbert Dawgs youth football program. Together, they won state championships and went to nationals in Florida.
As they grew closer and their time in youth ball with the Dawgs came to an end, they vowed to remain with one another in high school. Overall, it was an easy decision to make.
Along with their own personal friendships, their families all grew close as well. To this day they still vacation with one another, the most recent an extended stay in San Diego after the Gilbert football team played in San Diego State’s 7 on 7 tournament.
There was also the lure of playing for their youth coach at Gilbert.
Derek Zellner, Cooper’s dad, was hired in 2015 to take over the Gilbert football program. The kids adored him as a coach in youth ball and that made the transition to high school that much easier as freshmen.
“We’ve been running the same plays since we were 8 years old,” Greenberg said. “So coming here was a no brainer. It’ll be weird not to play for him and to adjust to new plays when we go to college.”
Every player can think back to what they all looked like when they were younger. Greenberg said there are times where he will compare photos from when they were kids to now and laugh.
They pushed each other to be better in the weight room and on the field from their freshman year to now. Their tight-knit bond even extended to other Gilbert players in the 2023 class, including players like Noah Narain who played against the five others in youth flag football when he was with Competitive Edge.
Narain said he remembered them instantly when he walked into the Gilbert locker room for the first time. He was the cornerback they would often stay away from because of his ability to lock down one side of the field.
“I think they beat me once,” said Narain, who remembers one of their games vividly when Dickie got the best of his teammate on the opposite side of the field. “As soon as he destroyed the other corner I had to move over.
“It was competitive. But when I first saw them, I recognized them and figured we would become close.”
Even as opponents growing up, they were always destined to be teammates. Narain lives across the street from Gilbert. Ever since he was young, he wanted to be a Tiger.
When they were in eighth grade Zellner began to take notice of him. He isn’t the biggest corner and he isn’t the most vocal on or off the field, but he knew the position and how to play at a high level. He proved that in youth ball and has done the same at the high school level.
Even as small rivals in youth flag football, the five players and Narain quickly became close friends at Gilbert. Now, they are preparing to play their final season together.
It’s something that has started to cross all their minds. While sad, they aim to make the most of the time they have left as teammates. Ultimately, they aim to start turning Gilbert in a direction toward success.
“I just want to make the playoffs and have a deep run,” Hechtle said. “I want this team to win. (Senior night) is something even our freshman coaches have said will be tough for them because of this class. We’re all really close.”
As emotional as senior night will be for everyone involved, the thought of watching this group graduate is something Zellner has avoided for the time being.
He watched them grow. He watched them struggle and have triumph in their football careers and personal lives. He was like another father-figure to them. That’s what makes this final season with them special.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Zellner said. “From those guys being 5, 6, 7, 8, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time to meet these kids and these families. For them to stick around here, too, and make their mark here at Gilbert, it says a lot about them.”