When 10th-year Rogers football coach Rick Rios sized up the Rams' schedule prior to this season, two things were clear.
If his team wanted a shot at a City League championship, it would have to beat Whitmer in Week 4 because they did not play Central Catholic, St. Francis or St. John's. And, if the Rams wanted to reach the Division II playoffs, they would have to take care of business even sooner than that during nonleague play.
Rogers (9-1, 6-1 CL) was not able to knock off Whitmer, losing 43-20 on the road to the eventual City champions on Sept. 18. But the Rams did secure the school's third playoff berth (all under Rios), mainly on the strength of season-opening wins over visiting Northern Lakes League foes Anthony Wayne, 32-28, and 2008 D-II state champion Southview, 30-14.
"Goal No. 1 for us was definitely to get back into the playoffs," Rios said, "and goal No. 2 is what we have a chance to do this week, and that's win a state playoff game for the first time.
"We thought the key was our first four games, with Anthony Wayne, Southview, Northview and then Whitmer in Week 4. We knew we had to do awfully well those weeks, and when we ended up at 3-1 through the first four we knew we had a shot."
A Rogers win would not only be their first in the postseason, but it would be the first for any Toledo Public Schools team from the City League. In fact, this is only the fifth time a TPS school has qualified for the playoffs. Rogers made it in 2000 and 2005, and Scott (1972) and DeVilbiss (1985) were the others.
After the Whitmer game, Rogers basically just had to avoid stumbling through what was, any way you slice it, a very favorable schedule over the final six weeks of the regular season.
The Rams took care of business outscoring Libbey, Woodward, Waite, Bowsher, Clay and Scott - teams with a combined 14-46 record - by a lofty total of 280-33 with three shutouts.
That was the easy part.
The hard part for Rios and his Rams now will most likely be manufacturing the intensity level necessary to compete in a playoff atmosphere.
Rogers, which is led by standout
senior quarterback E.J. Tucker, plays host to the Maple Heights Mustangs (8-2), whose two losses came to D-I foes in Lake Erie League play, 28-24 to 2007 D-I state runner-up Mentor (28-24), and 34-30 to Euclid, which is in the playoffs for the 14th time.
"That's always a concern, but again we felt those first four weeks were the beginning of our playoffs anyway," Rios said of the stretch between competitive games. "We feel like they prepared us for the rest of the season. Right now, the only concern was to make sure that we continued to get better each week. We really feel like we have."
Tucker was not only the Rams' field general and inspirational leader, he led the City League in scoring (23 TDs, 15 two-point conversions, 168 points), in rushing (1,118 yards on 174 carries), and was near the top in passing (81 of 143, 1,193 yards, 12 TDs).
Adding to the run game have been Gary Johnson (89 rushes, 457 yards, 7 total TDs) and DerJuan Gambrell (46 rushes, 429 yards, 6 TDs). Tucker's top receiving targets have been Damond Powell (21 catches, 352 yards, 5 TDs), Johnson (20 catches, 265 yards) and Zach Herron (16 catches, 236 yards, 4 TDs).
"The great thing about this year is that we've seen our team grow together," Rios said. "They've really stepped up maturity-wise. You can tell the difference from a year ago. The players really believe in each other now, and we're seeing them do some good things with each other."
Anchoring the defense is University of Toledo-bound linebacker Ray Bush (71 tackles, 13 for losses). Other top tacklers include Brandon Hunt (70), Donntae Franklin (53) and Victor Dominguez (49). Darrell James leads in interceptions with four.
"We have to continue to win the turnover battle," Rios said. "We are a plus-21 so far this year, and that's been big for us. Anytime you can win the turnover battle, obviously you're giving your offense extra opportunities and your defense a chance to get off the field. In a one-game deal, you can't afford to make mistakes."
Something was obvious to Rios when he first viewed film on Maple Heights.
"They're really fast," Rios said. "It was almost like we were watching ourselves. They've got a couple skill guys - their quarterback [Shaq Washington], their running back [Devonte Ransom] and a couple receivers [Ian Hill and Andre Stubbs] - that just pop out at you with the amazing speed they have.
"We thought for sure that we were one of the fastest teams that we've seen, and watching them on film is almost like watching ourselves."