The St. James football team saw their season come to an end on Friday night.
With the season now in the rearview mirror, head coach Josh Rodriguez look back at his first season leading the Tigers. St. James struggled a bit out of the gate, losing their first two games of the season, but they figured things out to the tune of six wins this season.
"I don't know if there were unexpected hurdles, but we knew there were going to be some growing pains with kids in some new spots," said coach Rodriguez on the first couple of weeks. "Sometimes those take time to gel and they took a couple of weeks before we got some things righted."
The biggest turning point for the Tigers was their matchup with Hermann in week three. St. James got their first win of the season in the rainy game and the horrible weather helped them realize that they could depend more on the running game.
"Rain," said coach Rodriguez with a chuckle. "Week three, that rain game kind of forced us into hanging our hat on the run game and it turned out to be a blessing for us that we had something pretty special that we could really rely on. It really opened up some of the other stuff and took a lot of pressure off Tate. He didn't have to try to carry the team and put up a ton of yards passing."
While the rain forced the Tigers to run the ball week three, but they were able to continue to pound the rock thanks to the wild success of Tyler Recker. In his first varsity season, the senior went off for 1,432 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, averaging about 130 yards per contest. Coach Rodriguez was impressed with how quickly Recker picked up the offense and went on to be a first team All-Four Rivers Conference running back.
"I'm a little bit surprised how much success he had. I knew there was going to be a little bit of a learning curve for him, but it didn't seem like it was a very big learning curve. He picked up on things pretty quickly," said the Tiger head coach. "Initially I thought he'd come out and we'd play him at slot receiver or something like that, but he's pretty electric with the ball in his hand and we had to find the right way to get him the ball and that was handing it to him. He turned out to be one of the best running backs in the area.
"Some kids have that 'it' factor and they can just play," continued coach Rodriguez. "Tyler definitely has that. He doesn't have to try to make things up, he can just go out there and play."
It helped to have an offensive line that was able to consistently open up holes and the Tiger line did just that. Led by a first team All-Conference lineman in Logan Ives and Zach Davis, who was an All-Conference honorable mention player as a defensive lineman, the St. James line did a great job all season long of establishing themselves and making it easier to run the football.
"Our offensive line really stepped up towards the end of the season. Logan Ives and Zach Davis were probably two of the best offensive linemen in our conference and they just made some gigantic holes. It's really easy calling plays when you've got guys on the ends that you know are going to hold their edge," said the Tiger head coach. "If you ask any true offensive lineman, they love running the ball, because when you get rushing stats, you kind of take credit for that as an offensive lineman. That's where you hang your hat and you take pride in that. Any time you have a 1,000 yard rusher or your offense is running for 300 yards a game or whatever it is, you take pride in that as an offensive lineman."
St. James also had some other strong weapons offensively. Tate Whitener was able to settle in at quarterback after the Tigers started to find more success in the running game. Grant Conway didn't have a big season numbers-wise because he was constantly in double coverage, but he still earned second team All-Conference as a wide out to go along with being the first team All-FRC punter. Jaden Roark and Nick Halbrook also showed great flashes throughout the season on the offensive end.
"Conway demanded double coverage. His stats weren't great, but that was partially due to how defenses played him. They always had somebody over the top and underneath him and you weren't going to throw the ball to him. You had to hand him the ball to him half the time," said coach Rodriguez. "Our receiving corps overall did a very good job of getting open when they needed to be and taking advantage that the defense gave us because they were taking away Conway."
Defensively, St. James was able to hang their hat on great play in the secondary. Whitener was able to serve as a quarterback on both sides of the ball as a safety. Along side him, Connor Gorrell somewhat quietly had a great season, where he earned first team All-Conference recognition as a free safety. A slew of good corners like Roark, Conway and Halbrook to name a few all contributed to a consistent group of defensive backs for the Tigers.
"We were very blessed to have probably six guys in our secondary that we rotated through that could start for anybody," saod coach Rodriguez. "They did an excellent job all season, whether it was Connor Gorrell, who was a really pleasant surprise of how good he was. He doesn't get a lot of accolades and I know a lot of the other guys have bigger names, but Connor had an excellent season as a free safety and kind of the driving force of stopping the run in our secondary. He was a big deal.
"I was very pleased with our secondary, I think they were definitely the strength of our defense and all the kids we played back there were able to come down and play the run or play man coverage. They were pretty good at whatever we asked them to do," continued the Tiger head coach.
In front of that strong secondary was one of the best tacklers in the area in Sage Gibson at middle linebacker. The first team All-Conference linebacker led the team with a staggering 184 tackles, leading the team by almost a full 100 tackles. The wild energy he provided in the middle of the field helped set the tone for the St. James defense.
"There is no other way to play middle linebacker than the way he plays," said coach Rodriguez on Gibson. "Fast to the ball, very energetic. Kinda like a doberman pinscher, he's on things quick and he's got a killer attitude. That rubs off on everybody else. It's a sensational energy that you can't make up, it's got to be authentic. That's something that you really look for in kids and no every group has a kid like that."
The biggest development that the Tigers made throughout the season was an ability to deal with adversity. Early in the season, they struggled to respond when things didn't go their way, but as the season went on they developed an ability to punch back and find a way to win. It was an important lesson that they needed to learn and it eventually is what led them to a victory over Owensville in Districts.
"We had a lot of adversity with kids getting hurt and a lot of kids having to play, but the next guy to step up was usually able to do the job and do it well enough that we didn't have a big drop off and that says a lot about the character of your team when you can face adversity and still overcome it," said coach Rodriguez. "We say several games where we could've folded our tents, especially later in the season. Early in the season, we didn't handle it so well, but towards the end of the season, especially like the Sullivan game when Tate went out. I think Sage was a little bit banged up in that game. We had several other kids that were hurt and had to leave, Logan Saxbury broke his ankle in that game and we had to move kids around and just play the next man up and the kids just kind of took to that.
"As the season went on, I think the kids kind of dropped the 'me' attitude and were focused on what we could accomplish as a team," said the Tiger head coach. "We don't care about stats, we don't care about the accolades or who gets the credit. When you start to believe in the team aspect of it and stop reading your own stat book, you're going to have a lot more success as a team and those individual accolades will take care of themselves."
That mentality of fighting adversity and believing you can succeed is what defines the first season of the Rodriguez era in St. James. That belief system started under former head coach Greg Harlan and coach Rodriguez plans to continue to build on it for years to come.
"This is not just things from my first year here, but things that have accumulated over the last few years in St. James football program, that we can be competitive year after year," said Rodriguez. "Coach Harlan did a great job the last couple of years to turning the culture to one where we feel we can compete and win and that's kind of carried over into this season and we're trying to instill that in our younger grades."