Ulonzo Gilliam grew up going to Merced College to watch Merced High football games at Stadium ’76. That’s where the Gilliam family spent their Friday nights watching the Bears.
Gilliam had cousins who played on the team, including Garrett Turner, who rushed for 2,115 yards and 24 touchdowns on the 2006 team that reached the Sac-Joaquin Section championship game.
“I looked up to my cousins Garrett Turner, Sidney Allen and Michael Turner,” Gilliam said. “Their close friends, too. Guys like Jarrett Sparks, Bernard Bolden and Marques Barron. I remember going to Merced College and watching the stadium fill up. I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to play at Merced High.”
Many of those former players and family members were on the Merced High sideline during the playoffs this fall watching Gilliam perform.
He put on a show this season, rushing for 1,597 yards and 22 touchdowns and was named the Central California Conference’s Best Offensive Player and was selected all-CCC first team on offense and defense.
After his stellar season, Gilliam is the Sun-Star Football Player of the Year.
“Some guys you know about or hear about before they get to your program,” Merced High coach Rob Scheidt said. “I remember watching Lonzy’s highlight tape when he was in eighth grade. He was a quarterback then. We knew he would be a great contributor to our program, and he did not disappoint at all.”
Gilliam was 8 years old when he was watching Merced High teams.
“It was just exciting watching those guys because my cousin (Garrett Turner) was one of the star players,” Gilliam said. “It was exciting to see him do his thing. He was living my dream, and that was cool to see.”
Turner, who now lives in Sacramento, attended a couple of Merced’s playoff games this year to watch Gilliam.
“He told me he knew when I grew up I would be able to do this,” Gilliam said. “He told me I was better than he was in high school. That meant a lot coming from him. I remember I couldn’t wait to wear a Merced High uniform.”
Gilliam showed a glimpse of the player he would become his sophomore year. As the No. 2 running back behind former CCC MVP Jabar Byrd, Gilliam rushed for 618 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged just under 10 yards per carry.
After a leg injury forced him to miss four games last year, Gilliam came back more motivated than ever to shine his senior season.
“It made me work harder than I ever had last offseason,” Gilliam said. “It made me want it more. I wanted to be great.”
Gilliam made an impact in every way a player can, rarely coming off the field.
“His vision, athleticism, ability to pass protect and pass receive make him a great running back,” Scheidt said. “The way we run gave him the freedom to take an inside run and bounce it outside or take an outside run and cut up the field. He was a kick returner and punt returner. If he’s not the best, he’s one of the best open-field tacklers we’ve ever had.”
One reason Gilliam rarely came off the field was because he’s a threat to score any time he touched the ball. He also returned two punts for touchdowns, caught three touchdowns and returned two fumbles for scores.
“I like to win,” Gilliam said. “I have the capability to give my team extra momentum with a big play when I’m on the field. I can give them extra confidence. I feel like I can make a big play when I’m out there and if I can touch the ball. I feel my coaches felt the same way so they didn’t take me off the field much.”
Gilliam hopes to play in college. UC Davis and Sacramento State have shown the most interest. He’s also attracted interest from Cal and Mountain West Conference schools like Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State.
“When it comes down to it, I just want an opportunity,” Gilliam said. “I would prefer to play running back, but I know I can play on both sides of the ball.”
After wrapping up his prep career with two CCC championships and Merced’s run to the semifinals of the playoffs this season, Gilliam will leave high school with plenty of memories.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” Gilliam said. “It didn’t end the way I wanted with us winning a section championship, but winning two CCC championships and then this year going farther than I’ve ever been in the playoffs, I feel we accomplished a lot.
“But what I’ll miss most is just the atmosphere with our team with the players and coaches. The love we had for one another. That’s what I’ll miss most.”
All-Area Football Team
QB – Armando Muzquiz, Golden Valley
RB – Cody Rentfro, Hilmar
RB – Jonathan Collazo, Stone Ridge Christian
RB – Tk Teneng, Pacheco
FB – Tre Walker, Dos Palos
WR – Klay Ferris, Hilmar
WR – Cadrian McDaniel, Golden Valley
WR – Carl Schofield, Pacheco
OL – Jacob Geist, Los Banos
OL – Ethan Jones, Hilmar
OL – Daniel Barnabe, Buhach Colony
OL – Paul Leonardo, El Capitan
OL – David Perales, Merced
DL – John Becerra, Merced
DL – Jesse Flores, Delhi
DL – Terris Evans, El Capitan
DL – Juan Bravo, Los Banos
LB – Damon Perry, Chowchilla
LB – Dustin James, Merced
LB – Ronnie Reyes, Chowchilla
DB – Chris Munoz, Pacheco
DB – Rayveon Slaton, Merced
DB – Lavon Wallace, Buhach Colony
DB – Justin Cantrell, Chowchilla
Utility – Isaiah Montanez, Golden Valley
Utility – Paul Scoggins, Merced