Last fall, Zubillaga opened the season as a safety/receiver, but injuries to quarterbacks Drew Lenkaitis and Alex Gorgone turned his season upside down. In a marquee league clash in mid-September against archrival West Chester Rustin, Zubillaga was thrown in as the emergency quarterback and led the Indians to a 14-0 triumph. Unionville went on to go 6-0 and capture the Ches-Mont American crown.
“When Alex went down in that game, and I just stepped in,” Zubillaga recalled. “As an athlete you just have to trust your instincts and do what’s best for the team.”
As the third-string QB, Zubillaga got a few snaps in during each practice, but he certainly hadn’t mastered the entire playbook. That changed quickly following the Rustin contest.
“We had to get him through the Rustin game and then we were able to expand the playbook with him after that,” Clark said.
“We had to change the offense a lot because my style was different,” Zubillaga added. “I am more of a runner, so we kind of reached back into the playbook to some old plays we used to run back in the day when we had running quarterbacks like Brendan Boyle and Tom Pancoast.”
Gorgone is back and healthy for 2017. That means that Zubillaga can return to his multifaceted role as a receiver with running back skills. Don’t be surprised, however, if he winds up throwing the football a few times.
“You never know,” he said.
“He runs it well, he throws it well, catches the ball and he is tough to tackle,” Clark said. “I don’t think we are any different than any other high school program where we want our best kid to touch the football 15-20 times a game.
“And people kind of overlook Joe as a defensive player because he stepped in at quarterback, but he is great on that side of the ball too. He’s got good vision in the secondary and he is tough enough to play outside linebacker.”
The youngest of five siblings, Zugillaga grew up not far from Unionville in an athletic family. He has two older sisters who are currently playing Division I lacrosse: Jillian is a rising senior starter at Oregon and Olivia started seven games last season as a freshman at Longwood (Virginia).
“I grew up always seeing that kind of drive and competitiveness around the house,” Zubillaga said.
“He comes from a family where they’ve had success, and I know his family keeps him kind of grounded,” Clark added.
Zubillaga often ‘played-up’ during his high school career. He was a linebacker as a ninth grader on the junior varsity team and the starting safety a year later with the varsity. And on the rare occasion he competed against kids his own age, Zubillaga flourished.
“When Joe played freshman basketball, that’s where I really got a glimpse of his tenacity and ferociousness,” said Clark, who also coaches Unionville’s ninth grade hoops team. “When he was among his own-age peers he was dominant.”
An excellent student, Zubillaga is being recruited by Ivy and Patriot league programs, like Cornell, Yale, Lehigh and Bucknell. Cornell has already made an offer.
“I kind of see myself as an outside linebacker at the next level, but who knows?” said Zubillaga, who is interested in engineering or architecture. “I could end up anywhere on defense or offense, especially how the game is evolving.”