Every great high school football team has a Justin Zacharyasz, a senior who’s not a star but universally loved by teammates, says “Yes, sir/No, sir” to adults, has a heart of gold and approaches every play like it’s his last.
Oh, and don’t forget his nickname, “Jay-Z.”
To say the Black River strong safety is making the most of his lone opportunity would be an understatement as the third-seeded Pirates (11-1) roll into the Division V, Region 17 championship game against top-seeded South Range (12-0) on Friday.
“It’s kind of unimaginable, really,” he said of how the season has transpired. “I can’t really compare it to anything else. It’s breathtaking.”
Zacharyasz is easy to like with a can-do attitude and frequent smile. He respects football so much that he wasn’t bothered being a special teams-only player as a sophomore and junior while Kyle Petruzzi and Zack Beard got the starts at strong safety, and he still isn’t bothered being the backup to running backs Travis Sexton, Jacob Campbell and Riley Gibbs because they’re getting the job done in an historic way.
In the meantime, Zacharyasz did everything to prepare and even got a chuckle out of then-secondary coach Rod Twining when Zacharyasz took instruction a little too literally as a freshman. After listing a bunch of serious notes on video, Twining asked for the maiden names of the players’ mothers just to see if anyone was paying attention.
Sure enough, Zacharyasz was the lone player to answer, proving he was taking the job seriously.
“He’s a super intelligent kid, but you know he’s a grubber,” 28th-year coach Al Young said. “You know he’s going to roll his sleeves up and he’s going to do everything we’re asking him to do.
“You love him. He’s a coach’s dream. I wish all kids would prep themselves, take care of themselves, believe in themselves the way that kid does. Put it this way, I’d probably have a full head of hair.”
As if the mental game wasn’t enough — Zacharyasz and Garrett Hord may be the smartest safety tandem in school history because both know every player’s assignment on every play — Zacharyasz also knew he needed to get every ounce of ability out his 5-foot-9, 155-pound body.
Most players are content with lifting weights and speed training. Zacharyasz wanted more, so he joined the wrestling team last winter after ribbing from two-way lineman Joey Duche.
“I was sitting at home over Thanksgiving break, and I was bored,” Zacharyasz said. “I was talking to a bunch of my friends, and actually Joey Duche and the wrestling coach, Jesse Campbell, they were saying I wouldn’t be able to last a month of wrestling. That kind of played a part because I wanted to prove them wrong, and it was better than sitting around doing nothing.”
Zacharyasz filled a lineup void at 132 pounds and took 24 losses on the chin, yet embraced every moment. He was in the best shape of his life, lasted the entire season and learned the art of leverage.
Missed tackles are the last thing Young has to worry about with Zacharyasz, who often is near the line of scrimmage as a pseudo fifth linebacker.
“Now that I’ve done wrestling conditioning, football conditioning really doesn’t faze me,” Zacharyasz said.
Zacharyasz has 58 tackles (5 for loss), three fumble recoveries (second in Medina County) and four pass breakups. He also has 10 carries for 55 yards, including two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in three second-half carries last week against Wickliffe, while spelling Sexton.
The statistics aren’t all that notable, but that’s not the point. Reliability, attitude and all-around likeability are what make Zacharyasz a star in his own way.
A senior can’t ask for much more than playing for a regional championship, especially when it’s his lone season as a starter.
All “Jay-Z” does is smile.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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