Marquez High opened in an industrial area of Huntington Park in 2015. The campus is adjacent to a lumber yard, where a loud machine grinding wood echoes nonstop.
“It’s every day,” football coach Rudy Fortiz said. “It’s like living next to a train track. You get used to it.”
A group of junior varsity players dressed in shoulder pads and wearing cleats kicked around a soccer ball on the all-weather stadium turf field as a lineman playing goalie tried to prevent the ball from going into a net.
Futbol, not football, is what Marquez has been known for since its first City Section sports season four years ago but 2019 could be a transformative year. Marquez is 5-0 in football and ranked No. 1 in City Section Division III.
“Since we started, we wanted to change the culture,” senior linebacker Christopher Diego said.
Diego, quarterback Erick Salas and 6-foot-3, 280-pound tackle Aldo Sanchez are the three seniors who’ve stayed together for four years determined to make the Gladiators relevant in football.
Fortiz, a former Garfield and South Gate assistant who was once head coach at Huntington Park, is in his first season as head coach at Marquez after being an assistant on a 7-5 team last season. Thirty-two of the 45 varsity players are seniors.
Diego, 5 feet 4 and 187 pounds, is a diminutive middle linebacker with the “biggest heart” on the team, Salas said.
“He plays like he’s 6-5,” Fortiz said. “He’s really strong. He likes to hit. He’ll hit you on the hip.”
Then there’s Salas, the quarterback who has passed for 760 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns entering a Central League opener on Friday against L.A. Bernstein. He’s 6-2 and runs an offense that is multifaceted.
“He’s good at reading the defense and commanding the offense,” Fortiz said. “His arm seems to be getting stronger.”
The big man on campus is Sanchez, who went scrambling like a running back after leaving his family car on Monday when his dog, Mumo, a chihuahua, escaped.
“He’s been dominant,” Fortiz said.
Sanchez has a 3.9 grade-point average and believes the team’s success corresponds with improving each year of high school while finally reaching the point where everyone is on the same page for their senior year.
“Now the team is familiar with each other,” he said. “It’s more like family.”
The Gladiators appear well-positioned to go 10-0 in the regular season. They have wins over Rivera (43-0), Monroe (56-13), Wilson (35-10), Santee (56-0) and Fremont (49-7).
Diego’s presence is a big reason for Marquez’s success on defense. He’s an inspiration taking on bigger players and making them ineffective by the way he stays low and finds a way to get to the ballcarrier.
“I have the mentality,” he said. “I’ve worked hard because of the weight room. I’m going to give it all I got, and I’m not going to quit.”
Even when Diego goes against Sanchez in practice, there’s no guarantee Sanchez will win.
“I know I have more speed than him,” Diego said. “I can dodge him or sometimes I’ll come at him with all I have, go full force, make contact and shed off the block.”
The team has a flag-raising ceremony every Monday after a victory. TheGladiators’ black flag goes up the stadium pole as players cheer.
It might be repeated 15 or 16 times on Mondays this season. This is the year of football at Marquez.