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Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 05:22 PM

Roosevelt football's stunning rise gives Seattle school something to cheer about

By Jayson Jenks
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the belly of Memorial Stadium two years ago, the seeds of Roosevelt High School's football resurgence were planted in an emotionally broken locker room.

The Roughriders had lost 35-28 to rival Garfield on the first day of October, and the sting of disappointment quickly devolved into outright finger pointing after the game. Some players simply kept their heads down, their eyes focused on the concrete. The more vocal members of that team, though, started blaming each other.

"That game made me realize that our team wasn't going in the right direction and that something definitely had to change," said Taku Shiozaki, one of many sophomore contributors that year. "We just told ourselves, 'This won't happen next year or years to come.' "

Two years later, those sophomores are now seniors driving one of the area's most surprising feel-good stories. Unexpectedly, improbably even, long-dormant Roosevelt (8-3) will play No. 1 Skyline (11-0) at 7 p.m. today at Memorial Stadium in the Class 4A state quarterfinals.

Even making the playoffs marked a significant accomplishment. The Roughriders hadn't done so since 1995. Roosevelt's deep senior class has returned the program to better days, when finishing above .500 wasn't a once-a-decade experience.

"Roosevelt was once the biggest high school in the state and was considered a powerful place," said Dan Raley, a former Roosevelt football player and longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports reporter. "This team represents redemption to a lot of alums. I just went to my reunion, and a lot of people were talking about this team."

Roosevelt has a proud football history. The Roughriders were one of the city's best teams in the 1960s under legendary coach Don Harney and produced college-bound players, including future NFL player Bo Cornell.

Yet Roosevelt made the playoffs only once in the 1970s, twice in the '80s and once in the '90s. Then, in 1997, Seattle's Roosevelt, Garfield and Franklin joined KingCo, and the slide began.

Before this season, the Roughriders' overall record since joining KingCo was 35-101, with their only winning season in 2008, when they went 5-4.

They became a punching bag for suburban schools in one of the state's powerhouse leagues. Roosevelt doesn't have the youth programs of Bellevue or Newport. And the school hasn't always had the facilities afforded most KingCo teams.

In 2004, while Roosevelt was being remodeled, the team's temporary practice field didn't have goal posts. Instead, players tried simulating goal posts by hoisting their arms in the air.

An exchange student from Denmark who had never played football before went out for the team that year as a kicker. Jeff Ware, Roosevelt's coach at the time, remembers a conversation he had the first week with his perplexed player.

"Coach, when am I going to see goal posts?" the kicker asked.

"You may not until our first game. But they look like this," Ware replied, holding up his arms. "Kick it over the one in the middle and between the two on the sides."

Victories were equally hard to find. In 2002, after Roosevelt beat Inglemoor 10-0 to cap a 2-8 season, opposing fans at a basketball game taunted Inglemoor's team with chants of, "Roos-e-velt foot-ball!"

The jokes spread into the school's hallways as well. The school newspaper even wrote an article criticizing football players for not working hard enough.

"It was kind of brutal," said Tate Maider, a senior.

Then came this year.

Second-year Roosevelt coach Matt Nelsen returned a deep senior class that he talked about with reverence. He had Shiozaki, a powerful runner, and an experienced line. More important, he had a team committed to the work required to win.

All year, from the aftermath of a surprising shutout of state-ranked Seattle Prep to a road win at powerhouse Issaquah and even through two playoff wins, Nelsen toed a vanilla line: He refused to let wins define the success of this senior class.

It was part coach-speak, but part something else — Roosevelt's reality. Nelsen played quarterback on his school's last playoff team in 1995. He then watched as teams limped through KingCo games, unable to crack the playoff barrier the next 15 years.

"I've watched this program battle for so long," he said. "I've seen this program have some teams that were pretty tough and pretty good. But when you're in this conference, it's hard to get good feedback for all the hard work you put in."

Of Roosevelt's three losses, one came against Newport of Bellevue, which made the first round of the playoffs, and another came against Kennedy of Burien, which is in the Class 3A quarterfinals. They were by a total of eight points.

The other defeat? A 57-14 loss to Skyline, the Sammamish team Roosevelt plays Friday. The Spartans have never lost to a KingCo city school — Roosevelt, Ballard and Garfield — and are defending 4A state champions.

But regardless of what happens against Skyline, Roosevelt's season has exceeded expectations. KingCo coaches picked the Roughriders to finish fourth in the six-team Crown Division. Now they're one of eight 4A teams in the state still playing.

Hugh Millen, a former Husky and NFL quarterback who graduated from Roosevelt in 1981, is savoring the success with his former teammates and old friends from high school.

"It's been a while since Roosevelt's been on the radar," he said. "So now everybody's saying, 'Hey, wow, look, the Teddies are playing well!' "

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com

Big leap

ROOSEVELT SENIORS have steered the Roughriders from KingCo pushovers to playoff team. The team's records the past four years:

2009: 2-7 (1-4 league)

2010: 3-6 (1-4 league)

2011: 4-5 (2-3 league)

2012: 8-3 (3-2 league)


DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Leading the way for Roosevelt's run to the playoffs are, from left, Taku Shiozaki, coach Matt Nelsen, Mitchell Shepherd and Tate Maider.




DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Roosevelt's football team has erased decades of mediocrity with its run to the state playoffs. Coach Matt Nelson, center, has the Roughriders primed to make a splash.




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