October 8, 2020/Chris Jackson
Zack Mercado’s father reached out to one of the most prominent line coaches, and there was no hesitation to work out with the young phenom from Vacaville Christian.
Aaron Day, a defensive line trainer who focuses on rushing the passer, saw it all when Mercado’s father connected with him, and he has seen why those around Mercado rave about the defensive lineman every chance they can.
“With him it’s the ability to pick up things quickly and to put them to use,” Day said. “I give him a couple moves, I try not to put too much on his plate, but he’s been able to surpass my expectations and just keep going. He’s very tenacious, really attacks things. He has an ability to bend and not only just bend, but he can put his hands in the ground and muscle people out of his way. He’s very strong.
“He’s a special talent.”– Aaron Day
Mercado’s first varsity campaign his sophomore season in 2019 said it all.
In Vacaville Christian’s run to a 7-5 record and a Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII semifinals appearance, which was the program’s first playoff appearance since 2014 and was also a year when it won its first playoff game since 2011, Mercado was dominant every step of the way. He registered 119 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, 28 hurries and one blocked punt, earning his way to Defensive Player of the Year honors in the region
And Mercado reminds Vacaville Christian head coach Manny Tarango of Armon Bailey, who is now a linebacker at Sacramento State and played for Tarango when Tarango was a defensive coordinator at Vanden.
Both players are intentional. They’re deliberate. They’re extremely hard on themselves, no matter how well they performed or what type of big play they just made.
“Zack pushes himself and holds himself to such a high standard,” Tarango said. “This is a guy that wakes up and watches film on a game and says, ‘My hand placement when I was holding that B gap was off six inches. And if I had got a little bit lower, I would have been able to push the pocket and I would have been able to get that sack instead of the quarterback hurry.’”
There is still so much more room for Mercado to grow, which is exactly what he has done during this extended offseason before his junior season officially rolls around in a few months.
Mercado is 6-2 and 245 pounds and has been a menace at every showcase he’s attended, displaying a burst right away that is tricky for any opposing offensive lineman to maneuver against.
“He has the athleticism to be able to move and pull, but he has the strength and the power to be able to just be, he can be like an Aaron Donald,” Tarango said. “He can hold a gap. He can change the direction of a game, and he’s only 6-2, 245. He’s still growing. But he plays like he’s much bigger. He’s super humble. He’s one of those guys that is very quiet in the classroom.
“He just gets in, does his work, 3.8 GPA, but he’s just so cognizant of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and he plays with such a reckless abandonment.”
The sky is only the limit from here going forward.
With 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as just a sophomore for a team that went as far as it did a year ago, the expectations are higher now. Once colleges can start recruiting in person again – the NCAA dead period was extended to Jan. 1, 2020 – Day sees the recruiting process taking off for Mercado.
“I think once they physically see the kid that they’ll see on film, especially this season, because his film is going to be very, very good,” Day said. “Once they see him in person, they can put somebody physically in front of them and see what he’s all about. He’s going to start taking off as far as offers come or just attention.”
“It’s going to help me with everything – recruiting, in game, just everything, the proper technique that he’s telling me to do,” Mercado said. “It’s just on the field, off the field, just me as a person – it’s going to help with everything.”
Maybe another Defensive Player of the Year award is on the way, too.
“I can’t say enough about Zack Mercado,” Tarango said.
“The kid has a motor. I think we might see our first two-time Defensive Player of the Year out of this season because I just don’t know if they’ll be able to block him. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and he has an unrelentless will to succeed. I just love Zack.”– Coach Tarango
Manny Tarango was hired in April of 2018, and there was not much time for him and his staff to get acclimated to their new setting.
Tarango, formerly the defensive coordinator at nearby Vanden High School, brought his entire defensive staff over with him. Hired later in the process, Vacaville CHristian was in pads just three months later in July.
At that point, it was to go in and get the players familiar with what they do. Get them focused on offense and defense. They needed to be ready to go.
It all amounted to a 1-9 season in the debut year of the Tarango era, but the roots were planted immediately.
“And then in year two we focused on getting bigger, faster, stronger,” Tarango said. “What we learned in that first year was the physicality of the Sierra Delta League really crushed us in that freshmen season for our coaching staff. We had to get bigger, stronger, faster. And we did.”
Vacaville Christian – a small Sac-Joaquin Section school with just 250 students on its high school campus – saw those results pay off in big ways in the second season.
Things were turned around in a big way during year No. 2. The Falcons improved from one win to seven. They averaged more than 36 points per game. They held three teams to single-digit scoring totals.
To top it all off, the Falcons found themselves in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII semifinals, falling to the eventual section champion in Mariposa County.
“We completely turned the program around in that second year and made it one game away from the Division VII Section Playoff, the title game, and so I think we kind of shocked a lot of people by getting there really, really quick,” Tarango said.
Quarterback Gabe Helmer shined all year and accounted for 3,087 total yards of offense and 44 touchdowns. Tamani Williams became Vacaville Christian’s first football player under Tarango to ink a college scholarship by signing with Valley City State University in North Dakota.
Even more talent returns, as multiple college-level players are sprinkled up and down the roster – including senior athlete Jaron Leaks, who recently announced an offer to UC Davis on his Instagram page, and junior Kendall Allen, who is not only on college radars on the gridiron but is also rated as one of the top basketball players on the west coast in addition to being a Junior Olympian.
So, how do they continue building the Falcons brand?
It’s all about culture.
VCS lives by three core values, and the staff finds a way to teach those values and implement them into their programs each and every day.
“We live by another motto,” Tarango said. “We tell the kids that we have to focus on being above the line. We have these red line painted stripes out on the football field to kind of give a visual representation of when we’re stepping onto the field it’s more than just playing football. It’s time to compete for our brother and to be intentional and deliberate and not make excuses.”
“I can’t say enough,” said Vacaville Christian junior defensive lineman Zack Mercado. “Coach T and the staff just, they’re great all around. They really push us to do great all the time, and they keep us focused in the classroom and everything. They’re just a great staff.”
It’s all about putting in the maximum effort and finishing what you started. You have to give 100% effort on the football field, during those drills, in the classroom and when you’re working on homework on the laptop.
Additionally, the Falcons have a big brother program. They are not invested in themselves, but they are rather invested in the team as a whole and becoming one family filled with love.
The big brother program features assigning every newcomer to someone who has been around the program. They sit down and interview with each other, then they have to type up a one page report about their teammate and speak about them in front of the entire squad.
“Everybody gets to listen about who’s your favorite player on the team, who motivates you the most, what kind of family life do they have, why are they here, what kind of stuff do they want to study in college and those kinds of things,” Tarango said. “And since that’s happened it’s brought in another level of accountability because I always talk to them about when your brother hits the wall, who’s going to pick him up and pull him through that? My leaders have really bought into what now you hear them saying, ‘Hey, we can love our brother but still hold them to a high standard.’”
Heading into what is now the 2021 campaign, Vacaville Christian is eager to watch its program grow even more.
Colleges are flocking from across the country to reach out and inquire about the Falcons. UTEP, right in Tarango’s hometown of El Paso, is coming out. There are Ivy league schools like Harvard and Yale. Southern Oregon. Pac-12 programs like Arizona State and UCLA.
They all see something special happening at the small private school with just over 200 students at the high school level, and they want these players part of their program. They see their character and they see how they win on and off the field.
Vacaville Christian believes even more is in store, and the Falcons are working to take that next step and win some rings.
“Me, Jaron, Austin (Dydo) – we’ve been working out three times a day, four times a day trying to put in that work. We want to win a title. I’m trying to bring a section championship and a state championship to this school.”Kendall Allen ’22
A new sports calendar could create hiccups for some, but local Bay Area athletes and coaches are not too concerned about how it will impact their schedules.
With sporting events on hold in most of California – including the Central Coast, North Coast and Sac-Joaquin sections – until late December or early January, that creates a condensed calendar as they look to still fit in all sports during a six-month span in the spring semester.
So, some multi-sport athletes – particularly those in three or more sports -might have to pick and choose which sports they play this year, or they work with their coaches to figure out a plan so that they can still compete in each of their respective sports.
“We prepared for possibly playing in October,” said Vacaville Christian head football coach Manny Tarango. “We prepared for possibly having to move it back to December and what happens if we go into spring? They’ve decided to go that route and that direction, and we adjust.
“Our message to our players and our team is to respond. We’ve been focusing on a lot of leadership and character development, and we use the formula of E + R = O. Event + Response = The Outcome. This is just a great teaching moment for us to continue to sell home.”Manny Tarango
Adjusting is all they can do, and at Vacaville Christian – a school with an enrollment of 250 at the high school level – Tarango and the other coaches on campus are working together to make sure they do what is in the best interest of the student-athlete.
STOCKTON, Calif. – The Pacific baseball program has officially announced that former Tiger Lucas Sweany has signed a professional contract with the Minnesota Twins.
Despite a shortened season in 2020, Sweany becomes the 95th student-athlete in program history to reach the professional ranks. Additionally, it also marks the eighth consecutive year that a Tiger has turned pro following their career in Stockton, dating back to Tyger Pederson in 2013.
“Playing professional baseball has always been a dream of mine and today, that lifelong dream came true,” said Sweany. “Thank you to the Minnesota Twins for making all of this possible… I am so thankful for everyone that has helped me achieve this dream. Thank you to Pacific for being my home the last three years… thank you to all of the coaching staff for developing me into the player that I am today… I truly couldn’t have done it without all of you.”
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Newest podcast in a series called The Realities of College Recruiting, episode 4 focuses on a recent decision by the NCSS Division 1 Council. “The NCAA Division 1 Council made a landmark decision related to the impact of the Corona Virus(COVID-19) and its on College Baseball Recruiting. With players and parents lost with the current COVID-19 issues and NCAA recruiting questions we did this powerful interview with Mike Rooney.”