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River Ridge enjoys its edge for playoffs

If there was a silver lining, a bright side in Mitchell's district championship loss to rival River Ridge, it was in the peculiar advantages found each year in the state playoff brackets.

The Mustangs were forced on the road to face Lakeland in tonight's opener. The Knights are home to face Lake Gibson. Should they both win, however, it's Mitchell that gets to host River Ridge and two other teams Saturday for the region semifinals and final.

"That's really why we did this," Mustangs coach Joe Dixon joked after Thursday's loss, begrudgingly hoisting his team's runner-up trophy.

The same scenario played out last year, when River Ridge edged Mitchell for the district title and both won first-round matches. Another common denominator with last year isn't good for either county team: the presence of a highly ranked team in the region, a major obstacle to a deep playoff run.

Last season, it was No. 3 Gainesville, which swept Mitchell in two games, then dispatched River Ridge two hours later. This year, No. 2 Plant stands in the way.

The Knights (15-6) will enjoy tonight's home match, as they did in beating Mitchell (17-9) on their home court in Thursday's championship. River Ridge lost to Hudson in its last home match of the regular season, Senior Night for the team's four seniors. Another chance at a last home match is another motivating factor.

"Losing Senior Night to Hudson was a downer," coach Heidi Castelamare said. "The chance to cap off your senior season at home against your district rivals, well, they really wanted to win."

Now River Ridge is home one last time and the Mustangs are in Lakeland tonight _ where both teams dream of returning next week for the state final four. For now, River Ridge has the comforts of home and the prospect of playing its next two matches just a 10-minute drive from home.

Mitchell has the confidence of knowing it won on the road last year to set up two home matches, and no shortage of other sources of motivation.

"I want to definitely paint a hopeful picture," Dixon said of what he'll tell his players before tonight's match. "I'll make sure they understand the team we're going against has played teams we've faced before. There's a lot of good stats for this team. I'll dig anything I can up."

Of course, if the Mustangs get past Plant, there could be another shot at River Ridge. And if history means anything, that's enough to light a fire under both teams.