Walk into Suddenlink Communications Field House and immediately you are greeted on the left side by a trophy case and on the right by an oversized team picture of Robert E. Lee’s 2004 state championship football team.
That team went 12-3 and was one of many that enjoyed playoff success through the years while maintaining a tradition of physical play on offense and defense.
But REL is now two years removed from postseason play. The Red Raiders recently completed their second-straight 1-9 season and have four wins in the past three years. Darrell Piske is REL’s third head coach in as many years and the Red Raiders are in the midst of an eleven-game district losing streak.
But Piske and his staff believe good things are on the horizon.
He is buoyed by strong seasons from Lee’s JV and freshmen football teams. The Red Raiders JV finished 5-5 and the Freshmen White team went undefeated while Lee Red 9th won district.
Last week was spent getting new numbers for strength, jumping ability and speed as Piske and his staff assessed returning players, but he believes it all begins with hard work and belief.
“We have to get back to where our kids have pride in being a Robert E. Lee Red Raider,” Piske said. “Not just think it’s like intramurals where everyone comes and get their letter jacket and win or lose, it’s no big deal. We need to get that pride in being a Red Raider back.”
A look back at 2012
The Red Raiders finished a half-yard away from achieving victory in their season opener as REL fell short to Sulphur Springs 35-34 in overtime.
Lee totaled 229 yards rushing in the game with senior LaQuintas Wallace going for 126 and three touchdowns. In overtime, Wallace ripped off a 22-yard TD run to set REL up for a win or tie. Piske had a decision to make and decided to go for the win, but Wallace told him he’d tweaked something on his scoring run. Piske stayed with his decision and sent in 5-6, 185-pound senior fullback Marcus White. White had accounted for 79 yards himself, mainly out of fullback trap plays, but going strength for strength against Sulphur Springs’ stacked goal-line defense, White came up a half-yard short.
Wallace was cleared healthy enough to play the next week against Lufkin and churned out 164 yard and two scores in 41-31 loss.
So, despite two losses, Wallace had totaled 355 yards and six touchdowns through the Red Raiders’ first two games.
Wallace had 194 yards and one touchdown in the next eight games combined.
“He had just little nagging injuries and just wasn’t productive (after those early games),” Piske said.
Both Wallace and senior Jordan Richardson were expected to be major factors for REL’s offense as Richardson was recovering from a fracture after winning the starting quarterback job in the spring.
Richardson came back in Lee’s third game of the season but did not complete a pass and finished the season completing 3 of 7 for 13 yards while catching three passes for seven yards.
“We had some kids who did a really good job in the spring and we wanted to build our offense around them and it didn’t pan out,” Piske said. “After that there wasn’t really anything to go to. Bryce (Wilkerson) was really the only player we had with breakaway speed, and up front, we weren’t as good as I thought we’d be and that showed.”
Lee grabbed its lone win in its final non-district game, 23-7 over Texas High. Raleigh Poster connected on a beautiful 65-yard touchdown pass to Wilkerson.
The Red Raiders completed one more TD pass in six district games and that was on a fake punt with senior kicker Lumi Kaba doing the honors.
“A lot of people once they saw JT man up us on defense and shut us down, they went to that idea where everyone was going to take (a receiver) and the rest were going to play the run,” Piske said. “Without a big strong running back who can break tackles, it put us in a bind offensively. Outside of Bryce, we didn’t have anybody who could shake and bake and get open; our quarterbacks struggled at times finding the open guy and other times we’d have O-line breakdowns on pass protection.”
Lee was outscored 253-49 in district.
Who is back for 2013
The Red Raiders return quarterbacks Poster and Christian Diosdado, its three top receivers and one offensive lineman from last year’s team.
Lee discovered a game breaker in Wilkerson, who displayed a little of what is to come in the Red Raiders’ final game when the junior rushed out of the Wildcat for 165 yards, averaging 11.7 per carry.
Wilkerson was also REL’s top receiver with 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow juniors Marquiston Williams (8-109) and Diondre Allen (2-76) will also be back. Sophomore Matthew Weeks (6-4, 275) started at tight end, but could also move to the offensive line.
REL offensive coordinator Dan Roberson admits he doesn’t know who will be starting under center next year, calling the competition “wide open right now.”
On the offensive line, REL returns junior Ryan Rendon and he is expected to lead the way in a more pass-protection type line scheme because the Red Raiders are going to put the ball in the air more next season.
“There’s a whole lot that goes into a passing game,” Roberson said. “Quarterbacks and receivers being on the same page and protections with the O-line.”
Added Piske, “They are all behind on pass protection because they hadn’t done a lot of pass protection work. It’s the kickstep, basic stuff, they weren’t real (versed) at, so we’ll have to work hard on that in the offseason.”
One guarantee from Roberson is the main star on Lee’s offense — there will not be one.
“We centered our offense around one guy this year and that one guy didn’t pan out, so we are going to try and get an offense that we can run with multiple threats,” Roberson said.
On defense, Lee returns an experienced group due to the Red Raiders employing many sophomores down the stretch. It begins up front with juniors Triston Taylor and Etim Asangansi and Lee defensive coordinator Shane Anderson is “real excited” about sophomore linebackers Roderick Gaines, Brandon Durman and Teddy Matlock.
“Those three continued to get better throughout those last couple games,” Anderson said.
In the secondary, Lee will have to replace several players, but returns Greg Lavely, Patrick Udofia and Patrick Crowder,
“We are going to have some help out of the JV kids to fill in some holes,” Anderson said. “I felt like we are up and down on defense (this year).
“It’s just a mentality. Obviously, we have to get faster and stronger in the offseason but it’s all about how we start. Right now I am really (bullish) on Gaines and Durman. Those two kids are going to be back at inside linebacker and will continue to get better. If they have the offseason they need to have, I think they are the two guys we are going to build it around.”
The Red Raiders are finding wins hard to come by, but Piske understands where REL is and the blueprint to move the program forward.
He’s done it before — twice.
First at Valley Mills, where the Eagles had not won more than four games in a season the previous seven years. Under Piske, Valley Mills reached the state semifinals in 2006.
He arrived at Fairfield in 2007, taking over a program that had won a combined three games in the two years prior. He led Fairfield to a 9-2 record in 2010 and perfect regular season in 2011.
Lee finds itself in a similar predicament, but Piske is confident he will turn things around again.
“At every place I’ve been, you’ll get a group that just makes up its mind that says ‘Hey, we aren’t doing this anymore. We are going to bust our tail and do whatever it takes to succeed,’” Piske said. “We are expecting a lot out of them with lifting weights, track and power lifting. You start seeing kids working out on their own too, whether it be offensive linemen out there working through their zone drills or quarterbacks working on pass drops and stuff like that.
“This offseason will be all about getting bigger, faster and stronger.”