Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a story that ran in the Oct. 22 Glendale-Peoria Today, but did not appear on West Valley Preps until now.
It is, in many ways, a “me” generation. The individual is glorified in athletics and on TV. Every popular entertainment device is personalized.
After Centennial’s 2009 season of national attention disintegrated with a playoff loss, the juniors who were going to lead the 2010 team talked about how they wanted to lead. The consensus: there was a little too much “me,” in 2009, and the Coyotes’ focus needed to return to team goals.
This season, three senior playmakers stand out as an example of this ethos. Vegas Johnson, Tevin Ray and Gary Ross would be the focal point at most other Arizona schools. At Centennial they’ve sacrificed statistics and individual accolades — and that’s fine with them.
“Last year during the spring after we lost, we started talking about ‘we, not me.’” Johnson said. “We’re all one unit, we’re all together. In order for us to go all the way and get back on top, we have to play for each other.”
Johnson’s sacrifice may not be obvious. He’s the lead running back — a role that others, like Ray and Jebron Harrington, could have filled — and gets more opportunities than any other Coyote.
But, when Centennial adopted the spread offense this season, Johnson became more of a decoy than he would have as a lead I Formation back. His runs up the middle move the chains, and they set up highlight-film dashes by sophomore tailback Jalen Ortiz and scampers and play action passes by junior Justin Sanchez.
Johnson led the team in rushes, rushing yards (1,162) and touchdowns (17). The attention he draws on fakes opens up the perimeter for Ortiz, who had nine rushing touchdowns of 23 of more yards, and Sanchez, who finished with more than 1,500 yards of total offense.
“We’ve got more than one person that can make a play on the team,” Johnson said. “Other teams can’t key on one person. It’s a lot of weight off of one person’s shoulders.”
Ross was the Coyotes’ Swiss Army knife. He rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, and was the leading receiver with 34 catches for 696 yards and nine touchdowns.
All this for a guy who plays less than half of the offensive snaps. Coach Richard Taylor said Ross’ value as a cover corner and punt returner are even greater, so he uses his offensive snaps wisely.
Ross defended nine passes and interceped four more and his five punt returns for touchdowns in 2009 caused opponents to punt shorter but away from him most of the year.
“My part on this team is the same as everybody else’s part, just working hard,” Ross said. “The reason I wouldn’t want to be at any other school is I came here to work hard — that’s what we do. Coaches push you to reach your potential.”
Ray, who would be a feature back at most Valley schools, has given up the most statistically. He sees a couple carries a game and doesn’t play safety, the most natural position for him at college.
Instead, Ray leads the defense from his middle linebacker spot. Centennial’s leading tackler (139) and defensive captain has embraced his role.
“This is our team,” Ray said. “We have to lead all the underclassmen and teach them how to play aggressively like we play.”
Johnson is another captain and steadying force. Ross is not a captain, but serves a vocal leadership role, as the team’s cutup and pregame energizing force.
Their leadership, along with that of Centennial’s other, is reflected in the team’s performance, Taylor said.
“They’re very talented, very athletic,” he said. “All of them put team first. They’ve been very unselfish. The guys on the team respect them.”
It’s not their first experience leading a team. Instead of sitting on the bench for the deep 2008 state champion team, Johnson, Ray and Ross paced the 2008 junior varsity squad.
That year was crucial for that trio as well as linemen Jake Abbott and Hunter Finn in finding their voice.
“We all didn’t move up as sophomores, so that definitely strengthened our bond,” Ray said. “Gary’s the really boisterous one. He’s the one to get everybody hyped up. I lead by example and so does Vegas.”
Though they haven’t been showcased at the expense of team goals, all three seniors are two-star prospects and could end up in Division One.
Johnson has verbally committed to the Air Force Academy.
Ray has gotten feelers from Arizona and San Diego State. He also could play in the Ivy League at Harvard or Yale.
Ross is considered Arizona’s top wide receiver prospect. San Diego State has offered him, and Arizona State and Oregon State are keeping an eye out.
But these senior playmakers aren’t looking too far ahead. They want to leave their mark on the program while providing an example for the next generation of Coyotes.
“We went up to Flagstaff over the break for a senior retreat. We talked about how we need to stay positive, don’t get cocky and work hard. We’ve been together for four years, all of us get along so there’s no cockiness or butting heads going on.”