NEW PORT RICHEY — The string of state tournament runs for Sunlake High School has made a great mark for Pasco County boys soccer.
But it’s also been kind of a pain for the county teams stuck in the same region as Sunlake.
One of them is River Ridge.
"If we just get over Sunlake, the sky’s the limit for us," Royal Knights sophomore Sean Martin said.
A big "if" indeed, but the Knights feel it’s as small as it’s been in quite some time. In fact, since, what year would that be, coach Michael McHugh?
"Seven years and ‘X’ amount of days. We have a running clock," said McHugh, readily reminded by assistant Mark Templeton of the time since River Ridge last beat Sunlake: Nov. 15, 2010.
As a reminder, Templeton sends McHugh a photo of the running clock shortly before each Knights-Seahawks kickoff. The most recent message came last Friday when River Ridge mostly outplayed Sunlake, only to lose 1-0 on a goal in the closing minutes.
It was the second 1-0 decision between the Class 3A, District 8 rivals this season — and those are the only defeats suffered by River Ridge in its first 14 outings.
"I definitely think the gap is closing. We had more chances the last game," senior midfielder Johnny Bomhardt said.
The trick, he admits, might not have anything to do with the talent on the field.
"I think it’s more of just a mental thing. Of us always losing to them. So we get a little bit nervous," he said.
River Ridge has beaten plenty of strong foes, reaching the playoffs three straight years, four of the last five. And though another trip is not a certainty with Gulf — the only county team to get a result against Sunlake this season, a 2-2 draw — the likely district semifinal opponent.
Though they only have one postseason win since the school’s state semifinal teams of the late 1990s, the Knights feel constructed for a deep postseason stay.
"We’re by far one of the best teams, not even in this area, probably in the state," offered sophomore talent Antonio Federico, unblinking. "We’ve all played together since we were like 3, 4 years old. I think everybody here has played West Pasco (youth league), at least at one point. We’re all together, not (just) technically but playing on the field, we’re a lot more in synch than every other team. That’s a big factor."
McHugh agrees with the family vibe as advantage, calling it the team motto.
River Ridge has no true star, and the coach loves it. Entering this week’s key back-to-back games with Gulf and Mitchell, River Ridge had seven players with at least five goals, but none more than freshman Garret Engh’s 10. And Engh is a sub.
Junior midfielder Niko Monacelli had nine goals while forwards Joe Moss and Mason Marten, both underclassmen as well, were at eight.
"Mark does the stats, so I didn’t even realize (exactly how spread out the scoring was). I went on the other day and looked and said ‘holy cow,’ that speaks to what this team is and what we try and preach," McHugh said. "I’d rather have a team like that, than one player dominating. With us, it’s who do you stop? You don’t know where it’s coming from."
It’s not just the scoring leadership that’s balanced. There’s no one "rah-rah" guy, but plenty who can spark.
"Antonio does it with his intelligence, his knowledge of the game. Sean does it with his ability to be brash and get in people’s faces as far as ‘let’s go!’ Johnny does it with his play. And (center backs) Parker (Engh) and Sebastion (Paz) will organize guys, get guys going, pick guys up when they’re down," McHugh said.
It’s an "awesome" dynamic for the coach. Now, if it can finally translate to a win over Sunlake. Assuming the Knights and Seahawks advance to the Class 3A, District 8 final, not a given of course, the final would hold enormous intrigue.
In reaching the 3A state semifinals three straight years, Sunlake wasn’t seriously challenged at the region level, much less in district tourney play. Last year was different, as the Seahawks beat River Ridge 1-0 and got past Nature Coast 3-2 before losing to eventual state champ Seabreeze in the region final.
"Yeah, they’ve got talent (but) they lost a lot of seniors. And we’re a lot better," Bomhardt said. "I definitely think the gap is closing. I think we’re gonna get the next one."
And McHugh doesn’t shy from stating it as an expectation.
River Ridge will have home-field advantage for the district tourney, which starts Jan. 29. Sunlake has defeated River Ridge in each of the past three district finals, sending the Knights on the road for regionals, where they were eliminated each of the past two seasons.
"Granted they’ve had some great teams, great teams and sometimes we didn’t deserve to win, but there are some like the other night where it just didn’t fall our way," McHugh says. "We still have to have that breakthrough to say, ‘yes, we’re here.’ I think we can go (far).
"But we have to have that seminal moment. That breakthrough."