June 28, 2016

Partly sunny

High school football: Undersized Zaz leaves everything on the field

The exact number fluctuates between 2,560 and 2,640, but Jonny Zaz squeezes every ounce out of his ability.

Standing 5-foot-7¼ — and he wants that quarter inch! — the senior has had an outstanding season for the Highland football team despite weighing between 160 and 165 pounds, depending on the day.

Middle linebacker Jonny Zaz is the heart and soul of the Highland defense. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

“I didn’t get very good genetics,” joked Zaz, whose father Mike is 5-7 and whose mother Renee is 5-4, “but that’s all right.”

Zaz moved from outside linebacker to the middle when Keith Williams broke his arm on the first play of the North Royalton game in Week 3, but the Hornets (12-0), who will play Avon (12-0) for the Division II, Region 4 championship Friday at Brunswick Auto Mart Stadium, didn’t miss a beat.

The senior’s 77 tackles rank third behind fellow linebackers Grant Wallace (90) and James Friedl (87), while his three interceptions trail only defensive backs Cory Moncol (5) and Coltin Kinsey (4).

“He’s the heart and soul of our defense,” Highland coach Tom Lombardo said. “Our three linebackers are a little undersized, but they’re quick and they’re fast and they’re sure tacklers. That’s what you like to have at those positions.

“Jonny has great instincts for the position. He makes good reads and knows what path to take. Some of those things you can’t really teach. It’s repetition and experience and a great feel for the game. He’s just real smart.”

Zaz, who carries a 3.5 grade-point average and scored a 27 on the ACT, benches 245 pounds and squats 365, but his biggest asset is his quickness, which he uses to beat opposing linemen to the spot he needs to get to in order to make a tackle.

“You’ve got to be quick,” he said. “I get quick reads because you can’t let the linemen get locked in on you. If that happens, you can be out of the play.”

Zaz is also quick to credit defensive tackles Myles Houska (6-4, 280) and Tyler Frederick (6-1, 250) for keeping opposing linemen off him and giving him a clear path to the ball.

“That’s the best part, when Myles and Frederick get in there and eat up those double teams,” he said. “It plugs up the holes and then they have to bounce it out and we get them.”

Perhaps most important — and impressive — of all, what Zaz lacks in height and weight, he makes up for with an immeasurable asset.

“He’s a very talented football player,” Houska said. “He’s always been undersized, but he plays with a lot of heart and determination. That makes up for it. He gets the job done however he has to do it.

“It just goes to show that if you work hard and play the game with a lot of heart, size really doesn’t matter all that much. It’s really inspiring and motivating to see a guy out there like that.”

On occasion, like when Zaz picked off a pass in the flat and returned it 44 yards in a key Suburban League win over Nordonia, opponents don’t see No. 22 at all.

“In youth football and middle school, I was closer to average size,” Zaz said. “When I got to be a freshman and sophomore, I got used to being undersized. That’s just how it went.”

Zaz, who wants to enter an Army ROTC program and perhaps major in psychology, has applied to Kent State, Ohio University, John Carroll and Dayton, but his playing days will end at the high school level.

That’s why he always plays with every ounce of energy — and weight — he has.

“You just know you have to leave everything on the field,” Zaz said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why we go out there and play our hearts out every time.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.