If you told a nervous, ninth-grade Gabriel Ocampo, trying on pads for the Peoria High freshman football team, that he might become one of the best pass rushers in the conference, he might not have believed you.
Yet, years later, as a senior, he leads all of 4A in sacks with 7.5 through four games.
Undefeated Peoria hosts Desert Edge at 7 p.m. Friday.
“I care more about the team doing well and winning. I saw that (7.5 sacks), but there’s so much more to the game than just numbers,” Ocampo said.
He got into the sport for the first time as a freshman. He was a long-time wrestler. Though he was new to the game and had to quickly pick up the playbook, his past athletics gave him a leg up on other novices.
The body bending and morphing, as well as strength from wrestling, he said, gave him some innate ability to fight through and around offensive linemen on his way to the quarterback. It has worked well so far.
By himself, Ocampo is a force against opposing quarterbacks. But it is his impact as part of the collective defense — one that allowed just 19 combined points through four games — that is most meaningful. He and the other pass rushers make the job simpler for Peoria’s defensive coaches.
Coach Will Babb does not have to send extra rushers to attack the opposing quarterback. He can scheme different ways to use his linebackers and safeties, as they are certain someone will be in the backfield without extra help.
“It just makes everything easier,” Babb said.
Ocampo’s improvement over time is not surprising to Babb. He remembers being impressed with the junior’s ability, as he would “have flashes of greatness.” Now, he has worked to make his impact more consistent.
Ocampo credited his rise to discovering a love for the game midway through his high school career.
“I think I started being really motivated after the first game last year. I got a sack and it just felt great. I was all-in,” Ocampo said.
His junior year was great, as Peoria went 9-1 in the regular season and was a high 4A playoff seed. But, as the team consistently remind themselves, the Panthers fell to No. 13 Seton Catholic in a first-round upset. Ocampo, as a leader on the defensive side, wants to make sure it does not happen again.
“The way it (last season) ended was terrible. Since that ended I’ve been working so that we don’t have to feel like that another year,” Ocampo said. “I just want to do as much as I can.”