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everything is on the line tonight for Mitchell, River Ridge

Three Pasco County teams have clinched playoff berths: Wesley Chapel, Land O'Lakes and Pasco all return to the postseason. Only one playoff spot still is undecided.

Mitchell went to the playoffs last year in the program's second varsity season and would like to do so again.

River Ridge hasn't been to the playoffs in five years, a streak it is desperate to end.

Mitchell battles host River Ridge tonight at 7:30 at Jim Valentine Stadium for the Class 4A, District 7 runner-up spot. At stake is the greatest prize save a state title a high school team can hope for: the chance to compete for it.

"It's like I told the kids," Royal Knights coach Mike DeGennaro said. "This is everything you play football for. They're at home, they're playing their next-door neighbors, the kids they grew up with, and the winner goes to the playoffs.

"You can't ask for a more important game."

"It's either us or them," Mustangs coach Scott Schmitz said. "The winner goes on, and the loser only has one more game to play.

"It doesn't get any bigger."

Nor does it get any more complicated, for this is a rivalry on several levels.

Schmitz used to coach River Ridge, leaving in 1999 to build the county's newest program. His departure, and Mitchell's opening, left his old program depleted. Many of his former assistants, led by DeGennaro, have struggled to rebuild a Knights' program that has gone 10-20 the past three seasons.

Mitchell hastened River Ridge's decline last year, beating its more-established rival 21-3. It was DeGennaro's toughest year as coach, as his team fell to 2-8. The Mustangs needed four wins to earn an at-large playoff berth, while the Royal Knights were left to dedicate another offseason to restoring the program.

But 2003 hasn't quite worked out as both programs would like. Both have lost close games to eastside powers, think their records (River Ridge is 3-5, Mitchell 2-6) do not reflect their talent or hard work and have yet to put forth the complete-game effort the coaches would like.

Of course, a trip to the playoffs heals all. Tonight, both teams have something to prove, not only to their foe but to themselves.

"This game is really about two very similar football teams," Schmitz said. "I think both of us have shown signs of playing very well. I think both of us have shown signs of not playing very well. It's just going to depend on who shows up. I think if we don't show up, they can beat us by two or three touchdowns. If they don't show up, I think we can beat them by the same amount.

"If we both show up, then it's going to be a pretty good football game."

Both coaches say Schmitz's association with River Ridge no longer factors into the rivalry.

"It's been four years since I've been there," Schmitz said. "The kids that are seniors now weren't even in my program. It's Dege's team and Dege's program now."

DeGennaro said Mitchell's opening did more damage to River Ridge than many realize, stripping away players who could have helped the Knights the past three seasons.

"When new schools open up, they're taking kids from other programs," DeGennaro said. "When Mitchell opened up, it got some of our kids and some of Gulf's kids, just like when River Ridge opened up and took kids from Ridgewood and Hudson (in 1991.)"

But surely there would be some satisfaction for DeGennaro and his staff to best their old coach tonight, and by doing so earn the current River Ridge regime's first postseason appearance?

"I think that's what we all work for every year," DeGennaro said. "But as a coach, yes I do want it for myself. But I do want it for the kids, too."