Fix-up makes Roosevelt 'trendy'

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kimane Domena, returning Roosevelt High quarterback, leads the Roughriders as they move up from their recent Class 5A success into the 6A ranks and go for an all-Portland Interscholastic League title.About 60 bodies — quite a few of them of the Triple-X variety — go through conditioning drills on the plush FieldTurf carpet at Roosevelt High on a recent afternoon.

It’s a big-sized, athletic group of athletes who, collectively, look like a football team.

The same couldn’t have been said about the Roughriders when a fuzzy-cheeked 32-year-old named Christian Swain arrived on campus as the new head coach in 2009.

Roosevelt was in the throes of a losing streak that would hit 27 games. Squad numbers were as low as the morale that permeated not only the school’s athletic teams but its campus. Roughriders caps or T-shirts were as difficult to find as students who wanted to identify with the school. Kids were choosing to attend schools with a better reputation and in a higher social-economic area.

Fast-forward to today. Roosevelt is one of the favorites in the nine-team Portland Interscholastic League that will reunite at the Class 6A level this fall. The Riders are coming off a 10-2 season in which they won eight in a row en route to the PIL 5A championship, beat Marist 38-35 in the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated 13-7 by Ashland.

There have been other factors toward the re-branding of Roosevelt as a school of destination, but none bigger than the surge provided by Swain’s football program.

“By my freshman year, it had started to become a popular school,” senior lineman Hunter Welch says. “Now, I see freshmen flocking in here, wanting to be a part of the school and our football program.”

Quarterback Kimane Domena came up through the Roosevelt youth program, starting in third grade.

“I remember when we played on dirt and gravel roads,” says the 6-2, 210-pound Domena, who has verbally committed to Brigham Young. “I still have scars from it. It’s been a really big turnaround, both for the field and the team.”

When Swain came on after a stint as an assistant coach at Salem’s McKay High, Roosevelt was “a Siberia for athletics,” he says.

Now, Roosevelt athletes are members of “#RiderNation.” Football attendance has swelled to 500 to 600 “for regular home games,” Swain says. “There were a couple of games last year where we had 1,000. For the Marist game, it was packed all around the track. Same thing for homecoming. The support has been amazing across the board.”

Part of a $72-million renovation of the entire school set to begin in spring of 2015 will be two new gyms, a new athletic wing, a new weight room and locker rooms. That’s in addition to the FieldTurf on the football field that was laid in advance of the 2012 campaign.

All the way around, “We are Roosevelt” is starting to mean something good.

“We’re starting to rebuild the good things of the past and create a new history,” says Swain, 38. “I think a couple of the kids who have played since I’ve been here will make the PIL Hall of Fame some day. I’m excited how these guys will be remembered.”

When Swain took the job, he had 18 players at spring workouts.

“We finished the first year with about 40,” he says. “We’re going to be closer to 80 to 90 this year.”

The Riders lost their first 13 games under Swain, but from the start, things were changing. For one thing, they had a big-time offensive coordinator in Neil Lomax, the former Pro Bowl quarterback who lives in Lake Oswego but has volunteered his time from year one.

“When I started, people weren’t lined up around the corner who wanted to coach at Roosevelt,” Swain says. “By the grace of God, Neil did. We had to start from scratch.”

Lomax provided instant credibility for the program, along with the knowledge of a player who quarterbacked at the top level.

“Coach Lomax knows the game in and out,” says Domena, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards and threw for more than 2,000 as a junior. “He took my skills and made them better. I’m learning everything he learned as a player. It’s a big advantage to have him as my coach.”

“Coach Lomax always hammers in the feeling that this needs to be a family,” the 6-2, 310-pound Welch says. “If everyone is playing for himself, it’s not going to work.”

Says Swain: “I can’t quantify how instrumental Neil has been. We’ve built an offense that has averaged 40 points a game over the last three seasons, In addition, he has been a great mentor to me and the kids. He’s a fixture in the community.”

Domena says Swain deserves a large share of the credit, too.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Domena says. “He took us from a long losing streak to the top 10 in state. Coach Swain doesn’t blow smoke. He doesn’t tell you want you want to hear. He emphasizes hard work and dedication. Him and coach Lomax have been the keys to us turning it around completely.”

Swain calls himself “a Roosevelt guy,” and that’s certainly true now. He is actually a Lincoln High grad who grew up in Northeast Portland near Grant High but “bussed across the bridge” to attend school at Lincoln.

“I always looked at Roosevelt as a place I knew I’d like to coach,” Swain says. “I knew they had great athletes in the area and were a close-knit community. They had to get the right people in place to get everybody together.

“It’s trendy now, a place where kids want to go. Before, it was, ‘No way I’m going to Roosevelt.’ Now, we have the good uniforms, beautiful facilities, have changed our branding and are winning some games. Everything is moving in a positive direction.”

Swain pauses, then adds this anecdote:

“Years ago, I had a friend tell me, ‘Roosevelt is that old car sitting on the side of the road. Everybody looks at it and says if we fixed that up, it would look nice. But nobody was ever able to do it.’ Now we’ve fixed the car up, and it’s pretty nice.”

Members of the local community have rallied around the Roosevelt program, but that’s not all. Help has come from afar in the metropolitan area, and not just from Lomax, a Lake Oswego resident.

Retired Nike executive Kevin Brown, who lives in Oregon City, has served as academics coach. Tigard resident Kirsty Dickinson, along with her family and friends, has volunteered to provide two team meals a week through the six years Swain has been the coach. Plenty of people care about helping a once woebegone program rise up to become both competitive and prideful.

“We’re raising our expectations for athletics across the board,” Swain says. “We’re building youth programs and doing things we haven’t been doing in the past. I like that we’re moving away from an apathetic attitude and talking about the things we’re not, and starting to become the things we should be.”

Welch played CYO football as an eighth-grader and wasn’t sure how he would be received.

“After my first year, I started to become part of the family,” he says. “Now I know I belong and I feel welcome.”

Swain emphasizes two things, Welch says.

“Our No. 1 team goal is to graduate from Roosevelt High School,” he says. “No. 2 is be a class team with unity. Those are the two key concepts that everyone has bought into and truly believes.”

Lomax says the improvement in those areas is what brings him the most pride.

“What we’ve done off the field is more important than what we’ve done on the field,” he says. “We had to get our graduation rate up. Wins and losses will come. Christian has done a fantastic job in all the important areas.”

Now comes another challenge — playing at the 6A level, an arrangement spearheaded by PIL athletic director Marshall Haskins to help restore city rivalries that had been lost in recent years.

Enrollment at Roosevelt is expected to be about 900 for the upcoming academic year. The Riders will be playing against schools much bigger — in some cases, with three times as many students.

“Marshall has put a pretty high bar up there for us,” Lomax says. “but we don’t want to sit back and say we have fewer kids, so we can’t compete. Let’s raise the bar and have some class in doing it.”

Swain welcomes the switch.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Christian Swain, Roosevelt High football coach, has helped swell the success and pride at the North Portland school, athletically and in other ways.“It gives us an opportunity to play against the best competition,” he says. “I like the fact that the PIL is back together. There will be some challenges to overcome, but it’s a long-term decision for what’s best for the growth of PIL athletics in general for the future.

“It’s going to be tough for us (in football), but we’ve been good the last couple of years, and we’re going to be really good this year. Depth-wise, we’re still developing as a program. At 6A, you get a little bit exposed. But Grant and Lincoln have been very competitive over a long period of time. We’ll fit in there.”

Domena said Roosevelt’s players saw a preseason computer list that had the Riders ranked No. 26 in the 6A ranks.

“It kind of shot us down for a minute,” the senior QB says. “Like always, we’ll be the underdogs. Moving up will be a nice showcase for us. We’ll execute and work hard, and hopefully they’ll see we’re better than that.”

Welch says the preseason ranking will provide a little extra motivation.

“Let people think what they want to think,” he says. “We’re going to prove ourselves to people who doubt us.”

The preseason schedule is daunting. The Riders open at home against Lincoln of Tacoma, Wash., which went 9-2 last season, then visit Clackamas, which went 11-3 in 2013.

“I asked for that,” Swain says. “It does you no good to play a weak nonconference schedule and not be able to get a good picture of where you are.”

The Riders return 15 starters from last year’s team, led by Domena, who threw for 21 touchdowns with four interceptions a year ago. There are good players almost everywhere.

“We look better at this time of year than we’ve ever looked,” Swain says.

Whether that translates to a winning record at the 6A level remains to be seen. Through the fall, #RiderNation will be cheering on the lads from Northeast Portland.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Swain says.

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