NEW PORT RICHEY — River Ridge High had seen this script play out before, never with a happy ending.
Close game. Anticipation for a program-defining victory. But instead …
"Heartbreak. We've had so many of them," coach Ryan Benjamin said.
Particularly against Land O'Lakes. Two years ago the Gators beat River Ridge 15-14, blocking a field goal on the game's final play. Even when the Knights went 7-3 in 2012, their only winning season in the past decade, there was a one-point defeat to Land O'Lakes.
String them together and the losses covered a span of 18 years. But that span is now over. And indeed, last week's 21-14 nail-biter may be the win that propels River Ridge to the next level.
"Finally," said Benjamin, who is trying to get his alma mater into the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
His relief was heightened because the victory came in a fashion he had stressed all offseason.
"For years it's been about going into a game and … not competing," he said. "The last few years we've been competing. Now it's all about finishing games."
Admittedly, Benjamin would not have predicted how the season opener would finish. River Ridge held on after it appeared the Gators had a tying touchdown in the final minute. The officials ruled that Land O'Lakes receiver Ethan Weilant went out of bounds before coming back in to catch the score.
The win came with a prize, one Benjamin had been eager to hand out since he took over as head coach. After a tremendous defensive game, Dillon O'Toole claimed the MVP trophy, a Gator mouth attached to a black plaque.
Granted, cobwebs had to be dusted off.
"There was actually a spider lying in there. Hopefully he can get that thing all polished up," Benjamin said. "Four years ago I bought that because in Pasco County, Land O'Lakes is a very storied program, and for us to move in the right direction it would be very important to show we can beat a team like that."
Just as important, perhaps, is how the Knights did it — their way, running the ball, so much so that Patrick Mathieson only attempted one pass. Junior running back Chris Schwarz saw his first regular-season action as primary ball carrier and was up to the task with 192 yards on 28 carries.
Benjamin has full confidence in Mathieson, who was 7-for-7 with four touchdowns in the spring game. But if he had his way, the Knights would run it every single play. Schwarz is on board.
"When we control the clock, it keeps the defense fresh, they go out and get stops. And with my offensive line, they make it easy," Schwarz said, making sure to mention by name Sean White, Pete Fellman, T.J. Renfroe, Damien Moore, Chris Wezesa and tight end Noah Guido.
More than teammates, Schwarz feels a "brotherhood" with his fellow Knights, many of whom have come up in youth football together. And like Benjamin, Schwarz thinks the team is ready to see its togetherness pay off.
Another chance to prove it comes today (Friday) at Sunlake. Were the Knights to pull off back-to-back wins against two of the area's best, then River Ridge can think about more than just getting to the postseason. The school has never won a playoff game.
"It started with the Hernando game (a comeback preseason victory) and continued last week. We're not worried about how big the opponent is now," Schwarz said.
With Sunlake a like-minded running team, Friday's tilt could be over in record time.
"It'll be two high school teams that play smash mouth. That game could be over by 9:30," Benjamin said.