By Gail Wood
It’s their been-there-done-that quality, their experience that has come to the Elma High School Eagles rescue time and time again this season.
Whether it’s quarterback Tristan Robinette scrambling out of trouble to find Justin Spencer downfield for a long completion, or Dalton Todd pulling from his right tackle position to level a linebacker on a sweep, or 6-foot-8 Kolton Emerson rushing from his defensive end position to bat down another pass, the Eagles are loaded with experience.
With seven returning starters, experience was key in the Eagles starting off the season with three straight wins.
“Our biggest strength is our experience,” said Jim Hill, the Eagles’ long-time head coach who also played high school football at Elma. “It’s the biggest thing we have going for us. We’ve got the leadership that comes from experience.”
Robinette and Spencer have been teaming up for touchdown passes – nine last year – since they were seventh graders. That puts them on the same page when a blitzing linebacker breaks up a play and forces Robinette to scramble.
“We definitely have a bond going,” Robinette said about Spencer. “I know his strengths. He knows mine. We fit well together.”
Robinette, a two-year starter who was honorable mention all-league last season at quarterback as a junior, is a double threat. He can throw and he can run.
“And he’s just tough,” Hill said. “He gets the job done.”
As a returning starter, Robinette knows what to expect from certain defenses. He also knows that as the guy calling the plays in the huddle and either handing the ball off or throwing it, he’s got to be a leader.
“You learn to control your emotions,” Robinette said. “You have to be cold blooded.”
Whether he’s thrown a touchdown or an interception, Robinette stays upbeat.
“You have to remain calm when you get into the huddle,” Robinette said. “Whatever emotion you have they’ll feed off that. If you look all worried, or you don’t look like you’re ready to go mentally or physically, then the guys will feed off that and they’ll be worried. You’ve got to stay calm.”
While Robinette knows it’s the players who make the plays, it’s Coach Hill that Robinette says is the difference maker.
“He means a tremendous amount,” Robinette said after his team’s 3-1 start. “Without Coach Hill we wouldn’t be in the position we are right now. He’s a heck of a coach.”
Spencer has been catching touchdowns for the Eagles since he was a sophomore. As a three-year starter, the 5-foot-10 senior has been a touchdown machine, catching eight TD passes last year. Having Robinette back at quarterback is an advantage for Spencer.
“You don’t have to restart everything,” Spencer said. “He knows what you’re going to do and you know what he’s going to do.”
Spencer, a first-team, all-league pick at receiver, isn’t just catching passes. He’s also knocking them down. He also starts at safety, making him double trouble for opponents. While he likes defense, he likes catching passes more.
“That’s fun,” he said.
For Spencer, a three-sport letterman, sports is more than just a game. It has also taught him some life lessons. It’s taught him how to work hard.
“I like my work ethic,” he said. “It teaches me not to give up, to keep persevering until the job is done.”
When Todd, a 200-pound senior, isn’t blocking, he’s tackling. Like Spencer and Robinette, he’s a two-way starter. The Eagles have nine two-way starters. Todd, who plays with an intensity, got his first start as a sophomore.
“That experience gives me more of an edge,” Todd said. “We have a bunch of experienced guys out there. We’ve all played together. We know how the varsity games work and that gives us an advantage.”
Todd’s favorite play is a sweep. He likes pulling from his tackle position and turning up field, looking for a linebacker or cornerback to block.
“I like coming around the edge and smacking somebody,” Todd said during a recent practice.
Emerson is just glad to be back playing football. Last year in a game against Aberdeen, he tore his ACL and missed the last four games. He also missed the first part of the basketball season but still made honorable mention all-league. He’s got the speed and the size to pressure the quarterback. He had three sacks after four games and had four batted passes in the first game.
While he likes pressuring the quarterback, he knows what his first responsibility is.
“My role is outside containment,” Emerson said. “Just make sure things outside of me go back inside toward the linebackers.”
And don’t get sucked inside with a faked handoff.
“Defensive end is probably the most fun position,” Emerson said. “A lot of people say it’s not the best, but I think it’s the best.”
Elma’s starting defensive front line is Emerson, Todd, Oscar Escalante and Asa Quimby. While the Eagles have been scoring a lot of touchdowns this season, defense is the key to their success.
“We win with defense,” Robinette said.