NEW PORT RICHEY — Walking down the halls of River Ridge High as a football player the past few years has been an arduous task at best.
The team has been the butt of jokes by the student body, making it almost impossible to gain the respect of their peers.
This summer the Royal Knights have focused on changing the perception of a squad that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1998.
"It's tough to listen to classmates sometimes laughing about the football team," junior quarterback Tyler Allberry said. "They always say we're going to lose on Friday nights."
The team is in transition after losing quarterback Kenny Toce and 1,000-yard back Stavros Arianas, which could only make things tougher on Friday nights this fall.
But there is room for optimism.
"I've got a great group of kids," said coach Tim Stevens, entering his fifth season. "You can ask a 30-year coach with a couple state titles and he is going to say he has had some great groups and not-so-great groups and they come in cycles, and right now we have a pretty good cycle of kids coming in."
Some of those standouts are from last season's junior varsity ranks. That squad had a program-best 7-1 record.
Sophomore Josh Maisel, the JV quarterback last season, believes with some of the players moving up from junior varsity and fresh faces coming from middle school with winning attitudes, the veteran players can only benefit.
But with all that early success, how will Maisel and younger players react if the varsity squad loses a couple games in a row? How will they take the criticism?
"We all expect to have a great season next year," Maisel said. "I think with some of us guys getting a taste of success on junior varsity really helps. Any kind of positive attitude helps. …
"It's an insult really when students say you are not going to win. It should inspire everyone to want to do better."
There are signs River Ridge is close to turning a corner.
The Royal Knights upset a talented Springstead team 31-14 in 2008 and have gone 3-7 the past two seasons, after winning just once in Stevens' first two seasons.
And with key standouts graduated and new coaching staffs at several schools in Class 4A, District 6, this could be a breakthrough season for the Knights.
Hudson lost four-year starting quarterback Zack Wynn to graduation, Wiregrass Ranch will be without 1,000-yard back Josh Johnson, and Tarpon Springs won't have star running back Adrian Golden. And Hudson, Ridgewood and Tarpon are in transition with new coaches.
While Maisel might seem to have the upper hand in the quarterback battle, don't count out Allberry. He has had a busy offseason at camps that might give him an edge. Allberry recently went to a USF camp and received several pointers and compliments from players in and out of the state.
"It was a great experience for me as a quarterback," Allberry said. "I was able to meet kids from down in Palm Beach and even one from Texas. We were able to talk a little bit about football in their area.
"I think I did pretty well at the camp, and this should only help me grow more as a quarterback."
With Maisel and Allberry competing this summer in Pasco County's unofficial seven-on-seven league and trying to wrap up the starting job for fall, one might expect some hostility between the signalcallers. Instead both show support for each other on and off the field.
"At first me and (Maisel) took it more as a rivalry, but we worked together more and now it has become a friendship," Allberry said. "We have great respect for one another."
And that's something the Royal Knights hope to receive from fellow classmates this fall.