The Duncan Banner
It was a season to remember for Empire football.
The Bulldogs hosted a playoff game for the first time since 1989, won their first playoff game since 1991, beat Velma-Alma for the first time in 17 years, and overcame several injuries and setbacks to get it done.
It was a year of success that Empire coach Tony Roberts expected as the season began.
“This was the year we were counting on to make some noise,” he said. “We proved we were worthy of what we had done.
“Nearly 25 years had gone by since we had this much success.”
The Bulldogs’ success this season was the main reason why Roberts was named The Duncan Banner 2013 All-Area Football Coach of the Year.
Roberts, though, would rather credit to his assistant coaches for how far the Bulldogs came this season.
It was a coaching staff that is relatively new to Empire. Jason Allensworth has the longest tenure at five years. Jacob Smith is in his second year, while Stefan Hunt and Michael Barnes just started this year.
Regarding Hunt, who coached the offense, Roberts said, “Me and him started to gel about week five or week six. At first, I’d talk to him and he’d talk to me about plays, but then he started calling the plays on my mind.”
Then there was the Empire senior group — 10 players who all played a key role in the program’s success.
Roberts noted that Gunnar Leseny “never missed a practice, never missed a workout, and only missed school when he was sick or when he had surgery for his knee injury.” Leseny mostly played special teams and missed much of the seaon because of that knee injury.
The Empire coach could rattle off a long list of the special contributions his seniors made. There was the interception Dakota Bilbrey had to seal the win against Velma-Alma. There was Cooper Hill, who led the team in interceptions as a freshman and remained integral to the receiver and defensive back groups.
He talked up Cole Bridges, who played fullback but mostly blocked.
“He didn’t have many carries, even when Stephen Price was out,” Roberts said, yet Bridges embraced his role.
There was Price, of course. The senior linebacker and running back missed several games with a broken foot, yet made plenty of big plays during the time he took the field.
Roberts had just as much praise for his senior linemen: Trey Skiles, Jacob Wilson, Ashtin McLaughlin, Zach Rivera and David Couch. Roberts noted that Skiles “fought his guts out,” not missing a game despite dealing with a broken hand and an ankle sprain during the season.
“Every one of those seniors contributed in some form or fashion to help us be what we were,” Roberts said.
Those 10 seniors will graduate in May. Roberts knows the Bulldogs will have a tough task ahead next season, but he has some quality players who will return. At the same time, Roberts said, they will have to work hard if they want to continue their success.
“When you have 10 kids graduate, you know that you are going to have a rebuilding year,” he said. “We will have to work hard in the offseason to get to where we need to be.
“I think we’ll be a playoff team against if we keep working hard. We’ll have to see how the young kids will develop.”
What has truly allowed Empire to succeed, the coach said, is that the players have “great attitudes” and a desire to get better. When they watched footage of the loss to Ringling Oct. 25, they never dwelled on anything and wanted to improve, Roberts said. After watching the film of the second-round playoff loss to Hollis, Roberts said players spent more time talking about the things they could have done differently, rather than looking for somebody to blame. Their attitude was no different following the Sept. 20 loss to Dibble.
“I don’t know if there was anything we could have done differently to prepare,” Roberts said regarding the losses. “I thought the game plans were good. We just got beat by the better team that day of those three losses.”
But those three losses took nothing away from a great season. Roberts said he has been happy with the way the Bulldogs have progressed in the five seasons he has been their head coach. It’s that progress that makes him enjoy what he does.
“These are the reasons you coach — to see kids grow,” Roberts said. “They were good at what they did and they’ll be good at what they will do when they graduate.”