The evidence has been credible if not concrete, arriving in piecemeal fashion nearly every Friday. If you've attended a River Ridge game, glanced at a Royal Knights box score or spoken to a local coach or two, you might have made the same case: The Royal Knights are turning the corner.
Peering through the prism of wins and losses, it doesn't seem that way. The North Suncoast's most downtrodden program has won once in its past 38 games. But that perspective is likely to change upon further review. Three of the 0-5 Knights' losses have been by nine or fewer points, and in one of the other two defeats — a 44-7 loss to unbeaten Gulf — the Knights led most of the first half.
"Unfortunately that's still the frustrating part, to be that close and not get rewarded in the win-loss column," third-year coach Tim Stevens said. "But to the kids' credit, they've played with heart all the time. … They don't realize how close they are to winning."
Well, Coach, we do. We've gathered the evidence and broken it down into the following exhibits:
Gulf 44, River Ridge 7
Granted, River Ridge was blown out in the end, but the Knights trailed only 8-7 at halftime. Days after the game, Bucs coach Jay Fulmer praised the physicality of the River Ridge defense and said the Knights were only a speedster or two from being a solid team.
Ridgewood 16, River Ridge 7
The Knights led 7-0 at halftime and appeared to outplay the Rams except for a short third-quarter stretch, which started with Ridgewood's Austin Jackson returning a kickoff 69 yards for a touchdown.
"That is the best (River Ridge) team I have seen come out and play the last four years," Rams coach Chris Taylor said.
Mitchell 16, River Ridge 10
The Mustangs led 16-3 at halftime which, according to Mustangs coach Scott Schmitz, might have prompted previous Knights teams to pack it in.
"Any time you're having a tough time and things start to go south you have a tendency to say, 'We can't win' or 'It's not going to happen,' " Schmitz said. "I think they're starting to get over that, and when bad things happen they continue to work."
The Knights JV
River Ridge's junior varsity — a.k.a. the varsity of the future — is 4-2. "It's a real good group of young kids," Stevens said. "They're actually just a few plays away from being 6-0."
Margin of defeat
This year, the Knights are losing by an average of 16.2 points (11 if you subtract the Gulf defeat). In 2007, that margin was 28.5; in '06 it was 26.7.
"We've been out-athleted a couple of times," Stevens said, "but the other three times we've been pretty physical with those teams. … What I've told them is we're maybe just not talented enough to make mistakes and compensate with our athleticism."