With almost double the number of players listed on his preseason media information form as he listed for the 2020 season, Rochelle High School head football coach John Cherry has more confidence than ever in his team’s abilities.
Going into his fourth season leading the Hornets, Cherry said experience as well as depth are strengths for Rochelle, which despite not always having strength in numbers has compiled a nifty 19-12 record over three seasons and come into the last two seasons with a preseason state ranking.
This season could be the best yet, as the Hornets are ranked No. 15 in Class 1A Division II by Texas Football magazine.
“This is the most excited I’ve been about a team in a long time,” the coach said.
Cherry, who began his head coaching career at Calvert and worked two seasons as an assistant at Richland Springs before taking over at Rochelle in 2019, said the returning experience means less need for learning and more emphasis on team chemistry.
“We finally have a good senior group with good numbers and big, strong-body kids, but last year, we had five freshmen who started off and on and so now, we’re starting, off and on, five sophomores with experience on top of those seniors,” Cherry said.
“We’re not changing what the kids already know. I’m in Year 4, so everybody on the team has only played for me, so Day 1, we’re district ready…Everything rolls because it’s all instilled in them.”
Rochelle returns five starters and 20 letter winners, which in D-II ball is a real luxury. The Hornets lost two letter winners off the team that finished No. 15 in the rankings despite missing the playoffs behind Richland Springs and Cherokee.
The seniors are Josh Barron, Sean Estes, Hunter King, Dylan Rimer, Tony Soto, Jason Morgan, Robbie Pitcox and Cody Marsh. Barron, Estes, King, Rimer and Soto were all-district selections while Rimer was also a second-team all-region pick at defensive line.
Other all-district selections who return are Bobby Cole Estes, Kelton Williams, Merek Howell, Justin Lopez and Gunner King — all sophomores. Tomas Palacio is a junior returner.
Freshmen are Clayton Johns, Jace McCormick, Christopher Lopez and James McAnally.
“One of the great things for us is it’s not the same six kids playing offense that are playing defense the entire game, that you’re just wearing out, which does seem to be the norm in six-man football and a lot of times what needs to happen," Cherry said. "But I think we’re talented enough and deep enough that not a lot of those kids will have to cross over and that really, really helps us, just as far as longevity of the season and even during a game, we get to the fourth quarter, and we’re pretty fresh.”
Another thing that keeps Rochelle’s players fresh is a real commitment to the team aspect of the game.
“I’ll rotate three spread backs for the second year in a row,” Cherry said. “My kids stats aren’t going to be crazy, off-the-charts because they’re splitting reps but the kids understand our success is going to come from that. They’re not self-centered, and if you combine those three players, we’ll have good stats at that position.”
Barron (5-foot-9, 155 pounds) is the head of the spreadback group but sophomores Williams (5-6, 155) and Howell (6-0, 140) give Cherry confidence in the strategy to keep kids healthier and fresher.
A big loss for Rochelle will be felt on the sidelines as Cherry’s brother Mike, who has been his defensive coordinator for three seasons, took over as head coach and athletic director at Blanket, about 45 miles away from Rochelle. Blanket is actually in the district (15-1A) that Rochelle’s district meets in the first round of the playoffs.
“We could potentially have a Cherry Bowl in the first round of the playoffs,” John Cherry joked. “He’s going to do great things. I was super-excited for him. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m about to lose the best defensive coordinator, my best friend and family but on the flip side, you’re so excited. He’s ready to take that step.”
Cherry said his brother was well-liked by the athletes and that they were sorry to see him go but loved him enough to help him move out, sending him off with hugs and promises to meet in the playoffs.
“A lot of times a coach leaving a school doesn’t look like that, so it was a cool moment for sure,” Cherry said.
Matt Maciel, a college roommate of the Cherry brothers and a coach at Rochelle for two years, will take over as DC. He’ll be picking up where Mike Cherry left off, in terms of scheme and terminology.
A newcomer to the staff is not a newcomer at all, but former all-state spreadback Marty Flores, who helped Rochelle to a district championship in 2015 and best playoff performance (two playoff wins) in school history.
“He’s an exceptional talent and very excited to be a part of it,” Cherry said. “He wants to learn and everything I’ve asked, he’s done it quickly and done a great job of it. The kids really seem to love him.”
Mike Watkins, a native of Brookesmith who has coached most recently at Rising Star, will help Maciel with the defense.
“He has a lot of value on the Xs and Os,” Cherry said. “He’s extremely dedicated and always running something by me or Maciel, trying to learn it in depth, how all the parts move.”
While Cherry has high hopes for the Hornets, there definitely is an elephant in the 16-1A room. Or rather two elephants.
Winners of nine state championships, Richland Springs is ranked No. 4 in the state by Texas Football magazine and is the favorite to repeat as district champ. But there’s also Cherokee, who is ranked No. 10 and come as close as any district team in recent history to dethroning the Coyotes.
“I think by the end of the year, we’ll have three Top 10 teams in our district and it’s unfortunate that a Top 10 caliber team is going to be sitting home,” said Cherry, whose team must earn one of two playoff spots, unlike in 11-man districts where four teams make the playoffs. “If that team was in another district, they might be three rounds deep in the playoffs.”
“We were probably a pretty good example of that last year," said Cherry, whose team last made the playoffs in 2019. "We were Top 15 and finished 7-3 but didn’t make the playoffs and nearly every team we played last year made the playoffs, including some D-I teams….Our kids are starting to realize they don’t always have to be the ‘little brother’ and believe they can compete with anyone.”
District: 16-1A Division II
Head coach: John Cherry (31-13; 19-12 at Rochelle)
Last year’s record: 7-3, 2-2 district
Last district title/playoff appearance: 2015/2019
Stadium: Hornet Pride Stadium
Returning lettermen: 20
Returning off./def. starters: 5/5
Base offense: Gun
Base defense: 4-2
Team strength: Depth and numbers
Team weakness: Limited playoff experience
Players to watch
FB/DL Sean Estes, OL/DL Dylan Rimer, SB Josh Barron, RB/LB Kelton Williams, QB/DB Merek Howell, OL/LB Justin Lopez, WR Tomas Palacio, WR/K Bobby Williams, OL/LB Bobby Cole Estes, OL/DL Jason Morgan, OL/DL Robbie Pitcox, WR/DB Tony Soto, WR/DB Hunter King, RB/DL Cody Marsh, OL/DL Gunner King.
Aug. 26 at Medina
Sept. 2 Nueces Canyon
Sept. 9 at Paint Rock
Sept. 16 Lometa
Sept. 23 Evant
Sept. 30 at Moran
Oct. 7 at Lohn*
Oct. 14 Richland Springs*
Oct. 21 at Cherokee*
Nov. 4 at Brookesmith*
Stephenville Faith W 62-40
Kingdom Prep W 64-63
Paint Rock W 59-7
Medina W 93-74
Lometa L 69-20
Gustine W 71-26
Richland Springs L 79-30
Lohn W 52-0
Cherokee L 54-38
Mullin W 74-28
This article originally appeared on San Angelo Standard-Times: Rochelle Hornets hope depth pays off in return to playoffs