TENAHA -- To say the Tenaha Tigers football program was hit hard by graduation last spring would be an extreme understatement.

No departure appeared more troublesome to head coach Terry Ward than the loss of all-state quarterback Reginald Davis, who led Tenaha to a 15-0 state championship season before taking off for Texas Tech.

Tenaha entered the 2012 season short on experience, and almost completely devoid of senior leadership.

Almost.

Senior offensive lineman and linebacker DeAaron Roland is the only senior starter for Tenaha, which will play for its second consecutive Class 1A Division II state title Thursday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium.

And that lack of maturity was all too real for Tenaha at the beginning of the season when the Tigers lost four of their first six games.

Someone needed to lead, and that person was Roland.

"He’s had a lot of pressure on him to try to lead this team, especially early when we were struggling," Ward said. "He’s a guy that kinda got us going and made sure everybody kept playing and didn’t quit. He’s never wavered on what our goals are. He’s definitely been an inspiration for these guys.”

Roland has certainly done his part on the field. He leads the team in tackles with 128 and has added a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, two recoveries and four pass break-ups.

“He’s a dominant player," Ward said. "He plays linebacker for us … he’s our leading tackler and he has been for the last two years. When he’s out there, our kids definitely play better. He gets everybody lined up right. He’s an emotional guy and he’s a physical guy."

Ward said Roland, a four-year starter, has been his confidant all season long.

"When we were 2-4 I brought him in and said ‘DeAaron, here's the deal. Right now we’re 2-4 but our goal is to get back to Cowboys Stadium. These first six games didn’t mean anything, the next ones are what matters,'" the coach said. "And he completely understood that. He was disappointed in the way we started, but he understood that going into district and the playoffs was when we really needed to peak."

Roland said he wasn't sure how his senior season would be remembered after the tough start, but that he was going to make sure he did all he could to turn things around.

“We had potential, but it took me figuring out how to talk to my teammates in order to get them to see the big picture of what we’re trying to do," he said. "I tried to stress that this opportunity only comes once. We have few seniors but this chance might not come around again, you have to take advantage of the opportunity while it’s at hand.”

Tenaha has won eight straight games heading into the state-title game rematch with Munday (14-0), and Ward credits Roland's leadership for salvaging the season.

“He understands that this team goes as he goes," Ward said. "If he gets down, they get down. If he’s playing and playing fast the rest of those guys play fast."

Needless to say, the younger players have rallied around Roland, and the Tigers' elder statesman couldn't be more proud.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better out of them," he said. "They’ve given me their heart and soul every day at practice and every game. In the classroom they’re labeled as freshman, sophomores and juniors but on the field we’re all seniors. They’ve stepped up and played like it’s their last year, too.”

Perhaps Roland's toughest personal challenge will come in his final high school game Thursday against Munday and its dynamic quarterback Dee Paul, an SMU commit who has totaled more than 3,200 yards and 52 touchdowns.

“It’s going to be tough," Ward said. "DeAaron’s job is to make sure that we frustrate (Paul). He’s got to make the tackles when he’s got a chance. He’s got to be our enforcer, he’s got to be the guy that dominates on the defensive side of the ball."

In other words, just be himself.

“We’re just going to have to keep hitting him," Roland said. "We can’t let him get comfortable back there. We want him on his toes, knowing that our defense is coming.”