By Fred J. Robledo
Injured combo back Zach Shay dressed for Bishop Amat’s CIF-Southern Section Pac-5 Division first-round playoff game against Tesoro last November, but it was more disguise than a real shot at playing time. After injuring his right ankle more than a month earlier, he still couldn’t plant and cut on it.
“I asked coach to put me in, but I knew it wasn’t happening,” Shay said. “It wasn’t easy standing there knowing you can’t help.”
Tesoro ended Bishop Amat’s season with a 31-21 win, a bitter ending considering the Lancers started 9-0 before losing the Serra League title game to Alemany, 38-30, and its playoff opener a week later.
“You always wonder what would have happened if I didn’t get hurt,” Shay said. “But you can’t dwell on it. We’ve got a new season and an opportunity to make it right.”
Amat coach Steve Hagerty has plenty of weapons at his disposal with senior running back Jalen Moore and quarterback Rio Ruiz, but he says night in and night out Shay is the most important piece.
“The outside world only looks at the numbers, it looks at the stats and (Shay) doesn’t have the type of stats that light up a sheet,” Hagerty said. “But our coaches know better. There are a lot of things that go on in a football game that help your team win – things stats don’t measure. But we know. We know what he means to this football team.”
How about the most important stat of all.
Amat was 6-0 and on its way to a Serra League-opening, 31-28 win over Crespi when Shay caught a pass out of the backfield, turned and went sprawling to the turf clutching his ankle.
Initially, Amat’s training staff ruled it a sprain and targeted Shay’s return toward the end of the season, possibly against Alemany in the league finale.
But his ankle was much worse than anyone thought.
“I tore three ligaments and strained everything in there,” Shay said. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it better. Even today there’s some scar tissue, but I’m all right.”
With Shay out, Amat’s offense became predictable.
Shay was a double threat in the backfield. He rushed 39 times for 280 yards and four touchdowns, and also had 27 receptions for 330 yards and three touchdowns, plus he returned punts and kickoffs.
He was the perfect complement to the hard-running Moore and was an outlet for Ruiz, who watched Shay take a routine pass and turn it into something big.
“Some of the structure of what we do is having inside and outside things,” Hagerty said. “We ask our quarterback to make choices. When you have Jalen responsible for running and Shay on the perimeter catching the ball, it’s almost a pick your poison kind of thing. When we lost that piece of the puzzle, it made us more one-dimensional than we wanted.”
While Moore is the primary back, Shay is no slouch and their contrasting styles is what made Amat’s offense click.
“Shay can carry the ball in the backfield as good as anybody on our team,” Hagerty said. “Jalen’s our main guy, but he’s more power, more downhill-type stuff.
“Shay is more a plant, cut, and dart kind of runner, and it causes major problems for opponents trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”
With Shay back along with a senior-dominated offense, Hagerty is hoping the Lancers offense picks up where it left off before his injury.
“We basically didn’t have Shay for all of league and the playoffs,” Hagerty said. “We saw more people around the ball where we were trying to run, which tells you how good Jalen is, because he made it work even with everyone knowing who was getting the ball.
“But you can’t win being one-dimensional, and with Shay, we have our options back. If you look at his yards after he catches the ball, you would be impressed. Catching the ball is all good, but what separates him from other kids is his ability to wiggle up the field and gain yards he has no business gaining.
“Like I said, that’s hard for the (novice) fan to understand, but we all understand Zach Shay’s importance to this football team.”