Talk to David Cota about the Irvine High football team and the same word keeps coming up, over and over again.
Cota is Irvine's middle linebacker and the team captain. He's a senior, but his connection to the Irvine football program runs much deeper than his high school years.
Cota has two older brothers, Gabriel and Victor, who both attended Irvine and played football under legendary coach Terry Henigan. Gabriel is the varsity defensive ends coach and head junior varsity coach at the school this year.
"They're older brothers so you know how that goes, but they're very supportive," Cota said. "They've always helped me out, and helped me get through things, kept my spirits high. They're great people and will help me with anything, especially sports."
And it's that feeling of family that Cota also enjoys with his teammates.
"A big part of this program – it's an amazing program – is that it's like a family, everyone's so close," Cota said. "I just love the team and the program and everything about it."
This season, Cota is back in his natural position as a middle linebacker, calling the defensive signals. He'll also get time as a fullback on offense. Last year, though, Cota played defensive end, playing out of position because there was a need.
"Last year we had two great middle linebackers in Kevin Torres and Matt Canlas," Cota said. "They moved me to defensive end, but that was cool because my brother was the defensive end coach."
Cota responded with 48 tackles last season and was an all-league, honorable mention selection.
"He was our third inside linebacker but we said we've got to find a way to get him on the field," said Erik Terry, who is in his third season as Irvine's head coach. "David was too good to be on the sideline."
And Terry said it was more than Cota's physical abilities that made it a priority to get him on the field, even at a position he had never played before. It was his feel for the game and a positive attitude that rubs off on his teammates.
"That's just inherent in his makeup with his family," Terry said. "His brothers came through here and it's one of those families, from the top down, that believes in hard work and never doubting your abilities."
Terry said in the 15 years he's been at the school as an assistant and now a head coach, this year was the first year the coaches asked the players to vote for a team captain, and Cota was a near-unanimous choice.
"He's somebody I can lean on and the kids can lean on," Terry said. "We're getting to that point where guys are believing and are getting out the doubt."
Cota is not big – he's 5-foot-7, 180 pounds – but it doesn't seem to be a hindrance.
"Irvine doesn't have the biggest guys," Cota said. "But the coaches' mission is to get us to always practice hard, and they're always preaching good technique. Size doesn't matter, it's about good technique and all the hard work we put in."
Terry said a lack of size is not an issue with Cota.
"He has a very good feel of where the ball's going," Terry said. "He flows to the ball and gets the job done. You see him walking around and you don't think he's very imposing, but he knows where to be and he knows his ability. He knows he's not one of these Trinity League linebackers, but he's able to cheat and take the extra steps he needs to get the job done."
Cota also plays baseball, and naturally, because of his body type and his leadership skills, he's a catcher.
"I've played baseball all my life, I enjoy both sports," he said. "But I lean more toward football because I love the program and just being out there with the guys all summer long."
Irvine got off to a good start to the season, beating Rosemead on Thursday, 20-0. Cota had an interception in the game, one of five turnovers caused by the Vaqueros defense, which allowed Rosemead to cross mid-field only four times in the entire game.
"We had a little shaky start, we were a little antsy," Cota said. "But the D-line did their jobs perfectly, the coaches made adjustments as the game went on and the offensive line took the game over for us as well."
Gary Renteria ran for 50 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and Wes Kim also had a touchdown run for Irvine.
The Vaqueros went 4-6 overall last season, including 2-3 in the Pacific Coast League. Cota says this year's team is confident it can compete for a top-three finish in league and a berth in the CIF playoffs.
"Our main goal is a league championship, it's always our goal from Day One," he said. "We know we can perform out there, we've just got to play as a team and keep working hard.
"All the teams in our league are good, we just know if we keep working hard we will do well."
The Vaqueros will try to improve to 2-0 on Thursday when they play Santa Ana Valley at Santa Ana Stadium. They will begin play in the PCL on Oct. 4 when they play host to Beckman.