(ran PT, CI, HT editions)
With River Ridge High moving up in class this season, you'd think coach Scott Schmitz would lower his expectations, especially considering his entire starting backfield has graduated.
Not only does Schmitz expect a second consecutive winning season, he says the Royal Knights should contend for the Class 5A, District 7 championship.
"We have a lot of offensive weapons to replace," said Schmitz, "but we feel our program is at the point that we don't have to search for kids. We can just plug them right in.
"The district is going to be real competitive, and we feel we have as good a chance as anybody to win it."
Standing in the Knights' way is traditional power Tarpon Springs, which reached the Class 5A state semifinals last season. Land O'Lakes, which also is moving up from 4A, and West Pasco rivals Ridgewood and Gulf and fellow Sunshine Athletic Conference member Springstead form the rest of the district.
River Ridge hopes to ride the strong arm of new quarterback T. J. Tucker to success. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior was the kicker and punter last season but Schmitz convinced him to go out for quarterback last spring.
Now, Tucker will start in the season-opener Friday at Pasco.
"T. J. has the strongest arm I have ever seen around here," Schmitz said. "He has made great strides in spring practice and this summer. He gives us the option of really opening up our offense."
Defensively, Schmitz said the strength of the team is the backfield. Returning starters Cory Hawks, Jimmy Pike and Jason Matthews give the Royal Knights a wealth of experience.
"These kids have speed, and they're very smart," Schmitz said. "They are going to get to the ball."
And that should help River Ridge improve on its 6-5 mark of last season and contend for a district title.
"We are to the point where we know when we show up on Friday nights we can play with anybody," Schmitz said. "It's going to be tougher than last season, but we are excited. We think we have a good football team."
Here's a closer look at the Royal Knights:
Passing game: While River Ridge uses the ground-based wing-T offense, Schmitz said he will use Tucker's strong arm. His favorite target will likely be Mathews, the junior wide receiver who Schmitz said is the Royal Knights' most improved player.
"We expect him to be one of the premier receivers in the area," Schmitz said. "He's got good speed and great moves."
The other primary target will be Jason Hoolihan, a senior. He doesn't have great speed, but runs excellent routes, Schmitz said.
Running game: River Ridge had the same starting backfield for three seasons and now a new batch of runners takes over. The go-to man will be senior James Caruso, who moves from wingback to halfback. The senior gained 303 yards last season and averaged 8.9 yards per carry.
Senior Josh Cadmus will play fullback, and junior Travis Heid will take over at wingback for Caruso.
"We'll use a lot of movement and motion to keep defenses off balance," Schmitz said. "Caruso sees the field very well, and he's one of the kids we will count on."
Offensive line: The Knights lost all five starters to graduation, so Schmitz is counting on younger players to step forward. The biggest lineman is junior tackle Chris Barnes, who is 6-3 and weighs 275.
The rest of the line is smaller, but Schmitz said that is not a disadvantage. Junior Mike Lero (6-2, 210) and Jack Tavo (6-2, 215) will start at the guards.
"These kids are very mobile and that's important for the guards in the wing-T," Schmitz said. "They are coming along and we expect them to get better."
Defensive line: Unlike many area teams, few Knights will play both ways and that's true of the defensive line. All-conference nose tackle Steve Meredith returns and will anchor the unit.
"Steve is small, but he is relentless," Schmitz said. "He will come after you."
Schmitz said Aaron Mohedano, Mike Pekarek and Steve Long will vie for the other starting positions.
Linebackers: "This is a question mark for us," Schmitz said. "We're small and some kids are going to have to step forward."
John Stanjeski and Clayton Bell will start, with several other players vying for the other slot.
Defensive backs: Hawks will anchor the unit at strong safety. Matthews will play both ways, also starting at cornerback with Pike. Caruso may also start at free safety.
Special teams: Tucker will kick and punt in addition to his quarterback duties. "There's always the worry he could get hurt, but T. J.'s a pretty big kid," Schmitz said. "We think he can take care of himself."
The coach: Schmitz, who started the River Ridge program, enters his fifth season. After a slow start, Schmitz has molded the program into one of the best in Pasco County with an emphasis on the basics and a steady diet of discipline.
Outlook: Schmitz said if the Royal Knights can overcome their inexperience in the middle, they will contend for a district title.
AT A GLANCE
Coach: Scott Schmitz, fifth year (12-29).
Assistant coaches: Jim Michaels, Jack Homko, Mike DeGennaro, Mike Marlin, Mike Leggiere, Ron Abernathy.
Colors: Purple and silver.
Stadium: Jim Valentine Athletic Complex, 1 mile south of Moon Lake Road, off DeCubilus Road, New Port Richey.
Class: 5A, District 7.
Playoff history: None.
1994 results (6-5)
Gulf 27-7 W
at Land O'Lakes 19-6 W
at Lakewood 27-24 (OT) L
Zephyrhills 20-17 L
at Kiss. Gateway 47-7 W
Pasco 29-16 L
at CC Catholic 37-3 W
at Hudson 28-0 W
Osceola 26-6 L
Ridgewood 14-0 W
Land O'Lakes Gator Bowl
Central 22-21 L
Did you know?
Starting quarterback T. J. Tucker was the Sunshine Conference baseball player of the year last season as a sophomore. He was the kicker and punter for the football team and will handle those duties again this season.