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River Ridge runs against severe odds

The individuals are skilled, but the team faces tough competition and classification.

Everyone wants to be out front, in the lead, the first across the line.

River Ridge is no different. Year in, year out, the Royal Knights fill local meets with some of the top male and female athletes in Pasco County. Records are broken, ribbons and medals are won at conference, district, regional and state.

But River Ridge has the misfortune to be stuck between a rock (perennial Sunshine Athletic Conference champions Ridgewood) and a hard place (the state's toughest classification).

Every season the Royal Knights cope with Pasco County's toughest schedule. Individual success has never eluded the team, but team success has.

"It's tough," girls coach Dave Heywood said. "I do believe we are in the strongest district. Odds are you're going to meet the better kids.

"But that's alright. You can't worry about the team, you have to worry about each individual kid and work on getting them better."

Boys coach Brian Colding said his team likes challenging the Ridgewoods and Springsteads of the world.

"To say it's a detraction or a letdown, I don't think it is," he said. "I think it makes them work harder and keeps them that much more focused. Because it says, hey, we have to beat these guys.

"The one thing about it is, sometimes it's easier to stay focused chasing somebody than looking over your shoulder."

Heywood admitted that, just once, "It would be nice" to be looking over his shoulder. But he knows it could be worse. River Ridge enjoys a success other county teams with anemic turnout cannot.

"I'm sure it's more frustrating for teams that just have trouble getting the numbers out," Heywood said. "I'm very aggressive in the halls getting the girls out. But for some (schools) it's just hard. Some schools you see them coming to a meet and they only have 13 girls. You can be the best coach in the world, but with only 13 girls, they can only go so far."

The SAC has been dominated by Ridgewood: The boys have won four-consecutive titles (dating to when Springstead was a member) and the girls have won 13. Last year the Knight boys took second.

But when Ridgewood and Springstead head to the post-season, they get to do so against local teams. Not so River Ridge, which because of its higher classification must contend with Hillsborough and Pinellas county powers.

The Knights are well armed to do so, with Pasco County's fastest man, sprinter John Gilmore, pole vaulter Mike Brock, 400-meters specialist Richard Eagly, Brett Newland in the 800-meters and Adam Eberle in the shot put and discus.

The girls rely on multisport star Jessica Verga, distance runner Melissa Tuccio and Emily Ollivier in shot put and discus.

This season they must again contend in the state's highest classification, and winning Class 4A, District 5 won't be easy with Gaither, Hillsborough, Palm Harbor University, Sickles and Wharton in the mix. That also means the times and distances to get to state, to place at state, will be tougher.

Last season the River Ridge boys finished second at the district meet behind Sickles and took seventh in the 4A-Region 2 meet, won by powerhouse Lakeland. The Royal Knight girls took seventh and 17th.

This season is starting out like years past. The Knights are strong, but how strong? The River Ridge girls finished second, as they often have, to Ridgewood at the Chasco Invitational this month. The Royal Knight boys took third behind the Rams.

The cycle could repeat at today's River Ridge Invitational. Last season Springstead won the boys crown, Ridgewood the girls.

Still, there is a thrill to the hunt.

"I remember when I told the guys they finished third at Chasco," Colding said. "They were like "What do you mean we finished third?' They were like, "Let's go after them next time.' "