After three weeks and a handful of surprises in Class 6A, District 6, one thing has become pretty clear:
There is no clear-cut favorite.
Hernando, the consensus pick to win the district, hasn’t won a game.
Nature Coast has won once.
Land O’Lakes was stomped 49-7 by Pasco.
River Ridge barely beat Ridgewood.
While Sunlake, Springstead and Mitchell have cruised to unbeaten records, the schedules have been less than daunting.
Which leaves us with Friday, the opening of league play.
While Hernando, Nature Coast and Land O’Lakes can blame some tough opponents for their slow starts, it is the Royal Knights’ first two games that have raised the most eyebrows.
Namely, a 17-14 home escape of Ridgewood, a team that lost its other two games to 6A-6 teams Springstead and Mitchell by a combined 96-6 margin.
Coach Ryan Benjamin isn’t knocking the Rams — in fact he complimented them on their gritty effort — but a team with the playoff expectations the Knights (1-1) have this season isn’t supposed to struggle against Ridgewood.
“I don’t think the kids have ever seen me quite as animated (afterwards),” Benjamin said.
The loss was a painful one — linebacker Hunter McLaughlin broke his hand, another linebacker, T.J. Petrizzi, was out with mono, and his replacement, Mitch Berg, broke his hand in relief.
The one bright spot? River Ridge rallied in the final quarter to win, an inability that plagued the Knights last year when they lost three district games by a touchdown or less.
It wasn’t a bright enough spot, though, to erase the result of a game no one expected to be close.
While the Knights entered the season with a little swagger and something rare in recent years at River Ridge — expectations — it didn’t take long for the team to get humbled a bit, perhaps resulting in the best two practices of the season this week.
“It was a tough week for us. I think it’s gotten across to them, the magnitude of where we are at,” said Benjamin. “Last year’s team really did something, they laid a nice foundation and this group wants to build on that, not go back to old River Ridge.
“I think we’re kind of at a turning point.”
Waiting around the corner is Mitchell, a team coached by Benjamin’s old high school coach, Scott Schmitz.
While the Knights have lagged, the Mustangs have surged to a 3-0 record, outscoring opponents 119-16 behind a rushing attack averaging 215 yards and four touchdowns a game.
Benjamin is hoping for a turning point similar to last season, when Mitchell rolled into New Port Richey 3-0, but was held to 139 yards of total offense while the Knights’ rushing game sprang to life in a victory.
This year, the Knights’ ground game is expected to be a strength behind a big offensive line.
But Benjamin is so high on quarterback Josh Maisel — he thinks he’s one of the best passers in Tampa Bay — and his trio of tall receivers (6-foot-5 Brian Clinkscale, 6-4 David Bond and 6-2 George Cordova) that he admits to being conflicted.
“Caught between two identities,” he said.
But Benjamin didn’t make it to the NFL and help the Bucs win a Super Bowl without being smart. The Knights run out of the I formation and the spread, hoping to find balance, and he knows in order for one to succeed, the other has to be working as well.
“We need to be able to run the ball,” he said.
Benjamin said the Knights plan to be one of two teams standing once 6A-6 sorts itself out. Every game is a big one in a district where seven of the eight teams can make an argument for winning out.
“One game at a time,” Benjamin said. “This is up for grabs. It’s competitive. We want to be there, and it has to start with Mitchell Friday.”
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org