Freedom's coach Jason Roeder holds the District 11 Class 6A championship trophy in the team's weight room. The Patriots won nine straight games en route to the title and finished 11-3.
Jason Roeder believes he has one of the best coaching staffs of any high school program in the state. It’s a dedicated group committed to hard work and getting the best out of the kids they work with virtually 365 days a year.
But Roeder, the veteran Freedom High football coach, and his staff got a little assistance from one of the world’s most famous personalities five weeks into the 2021 season.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a Freedom alum and former Patriots player, made a guest appearance on a video prior to the team’s Homecoming game against Central Catholic, which was 4-1 at the time and was ranked No. 1 in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference after posting wins over Emmaus and Parkland.
In his surprise video, Johnson donated shoes and other state-of-the-art athletic gear to the team through a partnership with Under Armour called Project Rock.
He also asked the Freedom team: “How do you want to be remembered?” and followed it up by telling them to work hard and go out and kick Central’s butt, except that he used a different word instead of butt.
The Patriots listened to the school’s most famous alum and routed Central Catholic 42-7 to start the second half of the regular season. It was win No. 2 on a nine-game win streak that carried Freedom through the rest of the EPC and through the District 11 6A tournament.
“The Rock” may have provided the one-day jolt that the Patriots needed, but it was Roeder and his staff who laid the foundation for Freedom’s run to the 6A gold by instilling a sense of day-to-day structure, hard work, and discipline that got the team out an early-seat rut and took the program to its second district title in four years.
Roeder’s ability to make adjustments and maintain a patient approach with a talented team made him a deserving choice as The Morning Call’s EPC coach of the year.
Freedom opened the season at 2-2 with disappointing road losses at Emmaus and Parkland, games that saw the Patriots come up short when it mattered most.
“It was frustrating,” Roeder said. “To be 2-2, we needed to take a look in the mirror and the whole idea was to focus on the process of improvement. You have to do that every year, even when you’re winning. Our league is just too good and too tough week in and week out to think you’re going to be successful without improving. We had to get better, but we couldn’t just sit around say ‘Hey, let’s get better.’ We had to be solution-minded and very specific in how we could get better.”
Roeder said staying together as a team was essential.
“We don’t point fingers here,” he said. “We don’t play the blame game. It’s not one side of the ball over the other. It’s one unit. So we put an action play in place to not just talk about getting better, but actually doing it. Our kids were extremely receptive and coachable and we adjusted the way we practiced. We saw the results and the next thing you know, we were on a nine-game winning streak.”
Roeder took responsibility for how the team was practicing early in the season.
“I told the kids it was my fault,” he said. “This was what I was tolerating. It wasn’t like we were having bad practices or the kids weren’t giving effort. It was just that they weren’t championship-level practices and by not demanding that, I was doing them a disservice. We had to pick up the pace and we were very clear with the kids about expectations. The kids were very coachable. They understood the end goal and saw how we needed to get there.”
It wasn’t all clear sailing.
Freedom had to rally to beat both Bethlehem Catholic and Liberty in their Christmas City rivalry games to close the regular season.
Playing without leading rusher Deante Crawford, they couldn’t pull away from unbeaten EPC North Division champ Northampton and had to stage a late drive to cement a 21-9 win over the Konkrete Kids in the 6A semis.
They had to overcome some turnover issues, an early 7-0 deficit, and repeated Emmaus drives into the red zone to post a 28-14 win in the district final.
It was the most satisfying win of the season because a loss to Nazareth in the 2020 district final served as the starting point for the 2021 team’s success.
A second district title in four seasons wasn’t enough, however. The Patriots wanted more and battled Philly Catholic League powerhouse St. Joe’s Prep to the wire in the PIAA quarterfinals before losing 24-21.
There were plenty of tears as the players and coaches walked off the field at Cardinal O’Hara High School, but plenty of praise as well from St. Joe’s Prep players, coaches and parents.
Roeder, his staff and returning players are already working on another run in 2022.
While Braelin Moore, The Morning Call’s EPC lineman of the year, and Crawford, the EPC offensive player of the year, will graduate, there are plenty of talented players returning.
But championships aren’t won on paper. It takes lots of work through the winter, spring, and summer to be ready for the fall.
While Freedom has elevated itself to the status of perennial power with accompanying high expectations each year, the internal drive for more championships escalates as well.
Roeder, who played at Bethlehem Catholic and Moravian, is 120-72 in 17 seasons and is regarded as one of the area’s best. He has attracted a talented staff that featured Greg Moore, Jeff Searfass, Mike Anthony, Juan Cotto, Bryan Haas, Charlie Heidecker, Earl Jenkins, Kevin Kelly, Todd Mika, Ben Reph, Gabe Robinson, Sean Searfass and Ken Wied.
Jeff Searfass, who became the new offensive coordinator, came over from Becahi as did Kelly, who coached the linebackers. They both fit in seamlessly after Reph and Jenkins took on lesser roles to watch their Freedom graduates play college football.
The team also wouldn’t be where it was without performance coaches Imad Azar and Roberto Diez or equipment manager Mike Quigley.
Roeder has a son, John, who will be a senior in 2022 and another, Ryan, who will be a sophomore. Yet a third son, Patrick, is in fourth grade and coming through the Bethlehem Township Bulldogs youth program, so Roeder isn’t going anywhere for a while.
He believes in the school and his program and the kids believe in him.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” Crawford said. “He teaches the kids about life as well as football. He’s just a great guy and I appreciate everything he has done for me. It’s been a great four years for me at Freedom and Coach Roeder has had a lot to do with that.”
Story by The Morning Call