Jalen Ortiz isn’t concerned about postseason accolades. He’s not thinking about his UCLA football future. The only thing that matters to the 5-foot-9, 180-pound dynamo right now is a state championship.
The humble leader can fulfill that mission at 7 p.m. Saturday when Peoria Centennial (12-1) plays Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge (12-1) for the Division II championship at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium.
Centennial is 35-3 in Ortiz’s three-year varsity career. Playoff losses in the final in 2010 and in the semis last year sting the most.
Ortiz has been on a mission to get rings on his teammates’ fingers and his ever since last year’s loss.
“He’s been real important to us,” coach Richard Taylor said. “Jalen would tell you the reason for his success is because of everyone else. He’s a very modest kid.”
Ortiz, who always takes time after games to talk to little kids who flock to him, hasn’t had a lot of opportunities on a team that has scored 683 points and has had 24 different players carry the football. Almost all of the games have been decided by halftime, after which Ortiz’s nights are mostly over.
But when he does get the ball, big things usually happen.
He has carried 114 times for 1,280 yards this season. He has 26 catches for 443 yards. He is coming off a career-best, 188-yard rushing performance last week in a 28-14 semifinal win against Tucson Salpointe.
He also had an interception on defense. He was mainly in charge of following Salpointe receiver Cameron Denson, who was held out of the end zone and, other than a 36-yard catch that set up a score, was a non-factor.
In one drive late in the first half, Ortiz had an 87-yard touchdown run called back and a 31-yard screen play for a TD called back by penalties.
“I just have to make plays for my teammates and help the team get the win,” Ortiz said.
He has been doing this since he first played in a tackle football game as a 7-year-old in a small town in New Mexico.
He moved to Peoria in the seventh grade and helped carry his Pop Warner teams as a running back.
Now he is close again to a title that has been the only thing to elude him in high school.
“He has had minimal touches this year, but he has never whined or complained,” Taylor said. “He never once said, ‘Hey, I need to get the ball more.’ In the long run, when we spread it out more, it makes everybody on the team fresher.”
Ortiz doesn’t mind. It’s being able to avenge the one loss this season that would give him the greatest satisfaction. Whatever it takes.
“I don’t care about being the star,” he said. “I just want to win football games. I want to win the state championship.”