'KICK THAT DOOR DOWN': Deep, talented Rogers squad hungry to overcome third-round playoff obstacle
READY FOR THEIR FINAL RIDE: Right tackle/defensive tackle Tyler Shelton (left) and center/defensive tackle Mason Davis are battle-tested seniors and two-way starters who aim to help head coach Charlie Roten's Rogers Eagles win the District 13-3A Division II championship and advance past the third round of the playoffs after two consecutive trips to the regional semifinals. Rogers opens this season ranked No. 17 in the state in Class 3A Division II and begins its season with a road test against rival Academy at 7:30 p.m. Friday at John Glover Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
ROGERS – In the highly competitive realm of Texas high school football, most programs would love to make it to the third round of the state playoffs two consecutive years. That’s what the Rogers Eagles achieved during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and they’re certainly proud of it.
But with the 2021 season on the verge of kicking off, fifth-year head coach Charlie Roten’s team – which features an intriguing combination of experience, talent and depth – most definitely will not be satisfied by another appearance in Round 3 of the Class 3A Division II playoffs.
“Obviously we’d like to advance a little farther, like anybody else. It’s been third round, third round. We’d like to kick that door down and get to the fourth round,” said Roten, whose last two squads went 11-2 and 7-6 and lost regional semifinals to eventual state champion Gunter and district rival Buffalo, respectively. Coincidentally, Roten was the offensive coordinator of Gunter's 2016 3A Division II state champoionship team before Rogers hired him for his first head coaching job. “But we don’t talk about that stuff very much. We try to take it on a week-by-week, practice-by-practice basis and get better.
"If you do that, then ultimately you get better every week and that’s the most important part. Because no matter how everything shakes out, at the end of the year if you feel like you got better and played well and you get beat in the first round, then that’s OK. That’s how we approach it.”
Having soaked up plenty of playoff experience and tasted the pain of back-to-back third-round defeats, senior linemen and two-way starters Mason Davis and Tyler Shelton are hungrier than ever to help propel tradition-rich Rogers even deeper into the postseason bracket.
“Make it to the playoffs and, shoot, let’s see how long we can ride this bus out. We’ve got a lot of people who can play this year,” said Davis, the Eagles’ 5-foot-10, 228-pound starting center and defensive tackle.
Sitting across from Davis inside Roten’s office at Donald Godwin Fieldhouse, the 6-3, 255-pound Shelton agreed with his veteran linemate.
“I’d like to go undefeated in district and, of course, make it past the third round and really go as far as we can,” said Shelton, who plays right tackle and defensive tackle. “I’d take anything, but especially past the third round and see how far we can go with this team. If everybody stays healthy, we’ll get where we want to be.”
Ranked No. 17 in the state by Texas Football magazine, Rogers begins its journey at 7:30 p.m. Friday with a season-opening battle on the road against old rival Academy at John Glover Stadium. The Eagles will seek to avenge the Bumblebees’ 20-15 victory at Merk Field at year ago. Rogers leads the all-time series 66-22-2.
“It’s always big. I think the rivalry lost a little bit with (the teams) not being in the same district, but it’s still one you want to win,” said Roten, who’s 2-2 against the 3A Division I Bees, winning in 2018 and 2019. “We were just talking about that. Academy’s going to come out ready to play, and our kids are, too.”
The Eagles’ home opener at venerable Merk Field is Sept. 3 against San Saba, whose Armadillos edged Rogers 24-21 last year and are ranked No. 17 in 2A Division I. The Eagles complete their non-district gauntlet with two 3A D-I opponents, Whitney and West.
“San Saba is a really good program, and Whitney and West are bigger schools on the edge of (rising to) 4A, like Academy. (We scheduled larger schools) kind of out of necessity, really,” Roten said. “We went 11-2 in 2019, so nobody was knocking on our door to play us. But it’s good for us and I think it really helped us last year.
“Our record (7-6) didn’t indicate that we were just an outstanding football team, but those games helped us quite a bit. That’s what we talk to our kids about – playing your best football late in the year, and I thought we did that.”
Rogers will compete in a rough-and-tumble District 13-3A D-II. Franklin was clipped 35-34 by Canadian in last year’s state championship game, and this season the always-tough Lions are ranked No. 1. Picked second in the seven-team league is No. 10 Lexington, led by Texas A&M-committed athlete Jarred Kerr. Last year Rogers rebounded from its 52-35 loss at Franklin by beating Lexington 33-27.
No. 17 Rogers is predicted to take third place ahead of 2020 Region IV finalist Buffalo, whose Bison topped the Eagles twice (46-28 in district, then 37-35 in a regional semifinal) but absorbed their only two defeats against district foe Franklin.
“I’m glad Coach (Brandon) Houston left Buffalo (for Taylor), I know that. He’s been a pain in my bottom,” joked Roten, whose Eagles did rally late to defeat Buffalo 36-33 in a 2019 bi-district duel.
Rogers’ district schedule is front-loaded, beginning Sept. 24 at home against Buffalo before the Eagles take on Clifton, Franklin and Lexington. Rogers finishes with Riesel and Florence.
“I would throw us and Buffalo, Lexington and Clifton in a hat and that’ll kind of shake out,” said Roten, whose squad will play nine consecutive weeks before getting its open date. “I think anybody’s capable of being anybody on a Friday night, but I’d definitely say that Franklin is the front-runner. We want to be playing really well when district starts, because those are the games that count. Obviously the non-district games count on your record, but you want to get in the playoffs. That’s the goal.”
Said Davis about which team on the schedule he most wants to beat: “Of course, Academy for old time’s sake, but I’d have to say Franklin and Lexington as well. They’re both pretty good. We beat Lexington the past two years and we held our own with Franklin pretty good last year.”
LEADING THE CHARGE: Rogers fifth-year head coach Charlie Roten has guided the Eagles to three consecutive berths in the Class 3A Division II playoffs, including trips to the regional semifinals the last two seasons. Roten thinks a large, skilled senior class and other key returning players can propel Rogers – which averaged 38.7 points per game during the past two years – to another stellar season. The Eagles' offense is counting on senior quarterback Riley Dolgener, senior slot Christian Riley and sophomore slot RJ Cook for major production. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Rogers averaged 38.7 points per game during the last two seasons, and Roten described the Eagles’ offensive attack – which rushed for 291.8 yards per game in 2020 – as “a flexbone with some Wing-T stuff, a hodgepodge. It looks like a spread sometimes, but it’s not like spread football. We like to be as balanced as we can. We run the ball more, so we’re not necessarily balanced from that aspect, but we’re balanced in getting the ball to multiple people.”
Roten expects a stellar season from senior quarterback Riley Dolgener (6-3, 195), who started Rogers’ bi-district playoff game as a sophomore and took over as the starting QB last year. He rushed for 580 yards and seven touchdowns and passed for 986 yards and eight TDs. He also threw eight interceptions, so Roten wants to see Dolgener improve that TD-to-INT ratio.
“Riley’s dad (Robert Dolgener) is one of our coaches, so he’s one of those kids who has been around the game for a long time. He’s great as far as his acumen,” said Roten, a football coach's son whose own young son is a frequent visitor to the Eagles' fieldhouse. “Riley's really progressed since last year. He started out a little slow last year in decision-making, which I knew he kind of would, but he got better and better and was definitely playing his best football at the end of the year. He’s carried that into this year.”
With senior fourth-year starter Christian Riley and returning sophomore RJ Cook, Dolgener has a pair of very talented players to distribute the ball to. Roten said they will start at opposite “slot” positions – essentially a mixture of a running back and an inside receiver.
“We feel like we’ve got two pretty talented guys who can do some damage in the slot,” Roten said. “They run the ball more than they catch it.”
The fast, elusive Riley (5-10, 166) had a highly productive junior season, rushing for 1,299 yards and 14 touchdowns, adding 287 receiving yards with three TDs and scoring 21 TDs overall. In last November’s bi-district game against El Maton Tidehaven, Riley’s 74-yard catch-and-run TD reception from Dolgener with less than 2 minutes to play lifted Rogers to a dramatic 41-34 victory. One week later, the Eagles eliminated previously unbeaten Poth 21-20 in the area round.
“He’s extremely valuable. Christian’s a very talented kid with a lot of God-given ability, but he works really hard and has had a great fall camp and two scrimmages (against Troy and Holland),” Roten said. “He’s a tremendous asset to our team.”
Thrown into the varsity fray right away as a freshman, Cook (5-11, 187) rushed for 470 yards and seven touchdowns on only 60 carries. However, he suffered a high ankle sprain early in the district opener against Buffalo and missed the rest of that game and the Clifton and Franklin matchups before he returned against Lexington. Cook also is the backup quarterback.
Rogers’ other options at the slot positions are junior Zach Davis and sophomore Karsen Gomez, a Holland transfer. The running back spot will be a tag-team effort with 225-pound senior Ivan Lopez and junior Garrett Wolfe.
The Eagles have a bevy of outside receivers to share the workload, including seniors Jordan Werner and Alex Vargas on the right side and senior Kade Sebek and junior Blayne Hoelscher on the left.
“We’re going to be very fortunate because we can rotate our outside receivers quite a bit and our inside receivers as well,” Roten said. “We probably have more depth this year than we’ve ever had, which is comforting.”
Center Davis and right tackle Shelton are the line’s seasoned stalwarts, while the other projected starters are junior left tackle Jaime Reyna, senior left guard Hunter Henderson and junior right guard RJ Dolgener, son of Rogers assistant Russell Dolgener, an outstanding offensive lineman on Temple’s 1992 state championship team.
Senior Colby Marinik, junior Brice Lisenbe and sophomore Josh Kohring also are contending for playing time on the line.
Gavin Bennett started all 13 games last season at guard and linebacker as a sophomore but still is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Roten said Bennett (6-0, 205) likely will return for Rogers’ third non-district game against Whitney.
The Eagles’ 4-2 defense seeks improvement after allowing 379.8 yards per game last year. Shelton (47 tackles) and Mason Davis (33 stops) solidify the middle at the tackle positions.
“Mason’s started since he was a freshman, and Tyler started as a junior and played quite a bit on varsity at the end of the 2019 season during the playoffs,” Roten said.
The two end spots will be manned by a combination of Henderson, Kohring, Marinik, junior Bryan Thuy, RJ Dolgener and Reyna.
“What we try to do is develop depth within our roster as best we can. Each year’s different,” Roten said. “We try to play multiple guys (at each position) on the defensive line.”
Lopez (43 tackles) and Lisenbe are the linebackers and should be joined soon by returning starter Bennett (57 tackles), while the athletic Cook (31 tackles) mans the free safety post. The crew of players considered outside linebackers/safeties in the Eagles' formation includes Werner (44 tackles), junior Jackson Landeros, Gomez and senior Brayan Campos.
Riley shifts from free safety to cornerback after making 43 tackles and four interceptions as a junior. The other cornerback prospects are Sebek, Vargas (36 tackles) and Zach Davis.
Roten believes he’s found a reliable kicker in sophomore Baldemar Arzola, alleviating what the coach called “my biggest worry going back to January.”
“Julian Lashbrook was my kicker as a freshman (in 2017) and he was really good for four years, so I’ve been spoiled. Baldemar has worked hard,” said Roten, who likely will have Riley Dolgener handle the punting duties.
Roten said the combination of a larger-than-normal class of 15 seniors plus other key returning players has him excited about what Rogers can accomplish. Among other things, the coach believes that leadership should be a strength for the Eagles.
“How we practice, how we go about our business weekly, how we want them to approach a game day, with things like that it’s important to have leadership that’s been around for a while,” Roten said. “We talk to them all the time about how leadership comes in different forms. There’s guys that are vocal and can get onto guys and they’ll take it OK, and then a lot of times leadership just comes through how you practice and your habits.
“Some kids just aren’t comfortable being vocal, and that’s OK. Mason’s one of those kids. He’s not a real vocal kid, but man, he practices really hard. Younger kids and his peers see that and hopefully it carries over to the rest of the guys.”
Davis has savored his major role in helping Rogers return to its winning ways.
“It’s been pretty fun. We had a tradition in this school for a while, then it kind of dropped down. Then we picked it right back up with Coach Roten,” Davis said. “He’s always yelling, but we always know it’s for our good and he just wants to see us do good. We never take it to heart. Every day we just try to get better.”
For Shelton, motivation never is very far away. His uncles Lyndon Clevenger – now an assistant football coach at Temple – and Teddy Clevenger played for the Eagles’ 2A state runner-up team in 1997.
“I hear it from family members all the time,” Shelton said. “It’s been real good to be able to set the standard that what we need to set it to, and being able to fill the shoes of what the old Rogers athletes did.”
As for what it will take for this season’s Eagles to overcome that pesky third-round obstacle, Davis and Shelton agreed that executing the basics in practice and playing with maximum effort and sharpness will be requirements for Rogers to earn a berth in Round 4.
“I’ve been able to tell that it’s just their mindset,” Davis said of the Eagles’ regional semifinal opponents. “It’s how you practice that week. You never win games on game day. It’s done through practice. Whenever we have a good practice week, we seem to always do pretty good in big games. You’ve just got to play hard until the whistle stops. Fumbles, interceptions . . . everything goes into (deciding) close games like that.”
Added Shelton: “I’d say if we practice a lot harder and take the little things seriously and do all the little things right, those games will go our way.”
To Roten, who at approximately 6-6 is perhaps the tallest head coach in the Temple area, there’s no secret potion or magic formula. Hard work, camaraderie and steady gains must provide the foundation for this deep, talented Eagles squad to soar to greater heights.
“If we just continue to have a good attitude and improve from week to week,” Roten said, “I think we’re going to have a good team. We’ll be a good team when it’s all said and done.”