Robinson coach Tommy Allison has a lot of great memories from over two decades of coaching football.
Playing catch with his son, Chase, in the pregame before his Cayuga team won the state championship in 2009 is high on the list. Being the offensive coordinator in Palestine and watching a young Adrian Peterson begin to blossom also ranks high among them.
But Allison’s best memory from coaching football came this season, a year removed from one of the most painful seasons of his coaching career.
After an 8-5 season in 2014, Robinson plummeted to 1-9 in 2015. The losses were especially difficult because the Rockets were in every game, often losing by a score or less.
“It was tough,” Allison said. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that in my life. We went 1-9 but we were probably a 5-5 team.”
The Rockets graduated 30 seniors in 2014, which led to inexperienced starters the following season. The 2015 season was also Chase’s first year starting as the varsity quarterback. Allison was forced to make that decision when his previous starting quarterback transferred to Midway right before the season. Chase threw for 24 touchdowns and was named second team all-district, but Allison said the inexperience and just plain bad luck was difficult to overcome.
“We scored points but a bunch of the breaks that we were fortunate enough to make for ourselves this year, we didn’t make the year before,” Allison said. “Games that we won late this year, we didn’t win the year before.”
Losing was a new experience for most of the athletes, and it took a toll as the season wore on.
“It was something I’ve never really been a part of, but it was a lesson learned,” senior wide receiver Rhett Roznos said. “We didn’t have as much fun as we had the year before, or this year, but I think we learned a lot from that. We still had fun sometimes but it was hard to overcome that we had a 1-9 season.”
Then something changed in 2016 and the offense exploded with production. Paired with two 6-foot-5 receivers, junior Braxton Ashcraft and Roznos, Chase and the offense set the Robinson record book on fire and led the Rockets to a 9-3 season.
Allison completed 255 passes for 3,933 passing yards, 51 touchdowns and five interceptions. Ashcraft caught 92 of those passes for 1,937 yards and 34 touchdowns, while Roznos added 44 receptions for 465 yards and two scores. Chase’s 51 touchdowns in a single season ranked ninth all time in Texas high school football history. Ashcraft’s 1,937 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns in a single season ranked fifth and second, respectively.
Chase said the 1-9 season motivated the team and a combination of will and hard work sparked the turnaround.
“None of us wanted to have another season like we had last year, so the offseason was really tough,” he said. “We got a lot of extra workouts and put a lot of extra time in during the summer.”
Hard work paying off
Their hard work led to a dramatic turnaround, making the Rockets the choice for the Tribune-Herald’s 2016 Jinx Tucker Award.
The honor is given annually to honor the memory of a man who gained national respect in his 33 years at the Trib’s sports editor until his death in 1953. Tucker embodied sportsmanship, fairness and team play. The award is given to an area team that has shown overall success, improvement throughout the season, sportsmanship, fan support and the will to win through adversity. It was founded in 1956 by Tucker’s successor, Dave Campbell.
“I honestly did not expect us to go 9-3 so it was kind of a shock, but a good shock,” senior Connor Barnett, a first team all-state offensive linemen, said. “I thought we would have a winning record but not win nine games and come in second in the district. So it was a great senior year.”
The common theme among the players was that they worked hard but remembered to have fun.
“Every time we stepped on the field it was all about trying to have the best time we could,” Ashcraft said. “It was a humbling experience to know that we overcame something that dramatic, but we just worked in the offseason and we all got bigger, stronger and faster.”
Laying the foundation
The foundation for this team was laid about six years ago. Allison took the varsity-coaching job at Robinson but also coached the seventh grade team. Many of the seniors this year also played on that team.
“The great thing about this class is that as seventh and eighth graders they were pretty average to below average,” Allison said. “They won three games maybe as seventh graders and three games as eighth graders, so it was a pretty good story for what they did as seniors.”
Like most coaches, Allison has always believed in starting the best and most deserving players. But when Allison first arrived in Robinson, he made extra effort to let everyone know his son wouldn’t receive special treatment.
“I was hard on him,” Allison said. “He was held to a way higher standard than anyone else because he was my son and he was playing quarterback. I put more of a show on so that everyone else would know he isn’t just playing quarterback because he’s my kid.”
That tough love led to a breaking point during Chase’s freshman year.
“We were doing some drills and I was upset with some other kids over something and I ripped Chase just because he was the easy target and he didn’t do anything.” Allison said. “He sort of broke down and at that point I was like ‘I am done with that. I’m going to treat you like my son and I will not yell at you again unless it has to do with effort or you paying attention I will never do that to you again.’ ”
After that, Allison stopped worrying about what other people thought and trusted his son’s ability to quiet any doubters. That trust grew in other areas, too. Allison said he might have tried to control the play calling too much during Chase’s first season but by 2016 he learned to trust his son to run the offense himself.
“Offensively I got away a lot and just trusted Chase to see the field and make the plays,” Allison said. “We would always call the play but the plays have a lot of different options built into it. With a lot of high school quarterbacks it’s pretty built into the play where they’re going to go. But Chase developed enough where we could give him the whole concept and let him decide where to go.”
Chase’s development was big for the Rockets but he also had talented players around him.
“Braxton is a special receiver and Rhett is a very good receiver,” Allison said. “Chase had two 6-5 receivers, we had really good running backs, Connor is one of the best offensive linemen in the area and it just clicked from the first game when we threw for eight touchdowns.”
The Rockets gained confidence after their first game. Allison said that was a huge part of the season’s momentum.
“It was just one of those things that started to snowball,” Allison said. “Then the guys started believing that they were going to score every time they touched the ball and so, they did.”
Protecting the QB
The offensive line also played a huge role in the record-breaking season. Barnett said it was the best offensive line he’s ever been a part of and that allowed the offense to open up.
“We gave up very few sacks for how many passes we threw,” Barnett said. “I think the line was great and that was a big reason we were so successful.”
But the offensive line suffered multiple injures and that led to a bittersweet experience for Allison.
“We had quite a few injures along the offensive line so my youngest son, Cade, had to start at center in week eight,” Allison said. “Cade played center and Chase played quarterback the last four games of the year, so that was really special. The first game Cade started was against Salado and we scored every single time. We never punted. So that was very cool.”
Even though the Rockets exceeded their own expectations for the year, they quickly realized they could compete for a deep playoff run. The Rockets won their first playoff game against Caldwell, 77-59, in the regional bi-district playoff game. But they ran into a buzz saw named the West Orange-Stark Mustangs, the undefeated eventual state champions, and their season ended in the area round.
Allison said the Mustangs were the best high school team he ever saw on film and the team knew they had an unbelievable mountain to climb. But his players weren’t scared and left everything on the field, so he’s proud of the way the season ended.
“I left with a smile on my face and I wouldn’t change anything if I could; except maybe not West Orange-Stark being in 4A,” Allison said with a smile.
He said the collective accomplishments of the team is what truly made the season so special for him.
“People go into coaching because they love the kids,” Allison said. “You look into their eyes after they win their first playoff game, what a sense of joy, to see them smile and the sense of accomplishment they have. Then to see them excel, like Connor first team all state, that’s a lot of fun. It’s not just about Chase and Cade, these are all my kids.”
Allison also felt support from the community more than ever this season.
“Our theme was ‘our town, our team,’ ” Allison said. “There were flags up and down Highway 77 with our blue RR on it. Our community and fans really embraced that and supported this team. We traveled down for our first playoff game to College Station and there was a wreck so we had to delay the game. But we looked into the stands and saw all the people there to support them and that meant a lot.”
Although records and awards pale in comparison to the bonds built over a season like Robinson had in 2016, Allison said receiving the Jinx Tucker Award is a great honor for the school district and made the season just that much better.
“These seniors especially mean a lot to me and this is a great way to top it off,” Allison said. “I think the last time Robinson got it was 1983, so I think it says a lot about the character and hard work of the team.”