NEW PORT RICHEY — The River Ridge-Mitchell football rivalry had a perfectly natural starting point. That would be when Mitchell High opened in 2000, drawing plenty of students away from the River Ridge zone.
But not until the last few years have things gotten so intense. And there's a pretty obvious reason for that as well.
"It wasn't much of a rivalry really until about four to five years ago, when (coach Ryan) Benjamin kinda got them going again," Mitchell coach Andy Schmitz said.
Benjamin really has gotten the Royal Knights going. Into places they had never gone before.
Before Benjamin took over as head coach of his alma mater, River Ridge had endured a full decade of nothing but losing seasons that included back-to-back 0-10 marks. The Knights totaled 19 victories in that time.
That's a total River Ridge surpassed in just two seasons, namely 2014 and 2015. The Knights earned their first district championship in 2014 and have continued to earn them, three straight without losing a league game. It all culminated in a first trip to the region finals last year.
The home playoff dates have given the Knights' loyal fan group to shine.
The Purple Posse, befitting its peerless status among organized fan groups, last year was honored by the Florida High School Athletic Association with the best School Spirit Award.
But if anyone can hang, it would be Mitchell's 'Stang Gang.
"The student bodies have really gotten this thing going," Schmitz said. "They have fun on Twitter. And so this game, to the players, is every bit as big as any district game. It's no different than a college football rivalry where if you win it, that can make up for a whole bunch of other things that didn't go your way."
It will feel like the majority of the student bodies are at River Ridge on Friday night. From a logistics standpoint, it's a playoff game.
"Our administration is coordinating how it's all going to flow," Benjamin said. "Try to make sure we have enough facilities for everybody, try to make sure the concessions lines aren't too long. There will be twice as many people as there normally is."
And it won't be hard to tell them apart. Typically the Purple Posse dons — well, take a guess — while the 'Stang Gang supports its Mustangs with all black. If there's a color theme (River Ridge went with a very cool all-camo look last year), everyone gets the memo.
Both support groups are active on social media and loud throughout the game. Both groups show up at every sport, but it's football where the numbers are largest.
They even have their own Twitter handles: @PurplePosse2018 and @JWMHSStangGang.
The only trick is not to go overboard, both online and in the stands.
"I think they know the line. Though I've had to talk to a few of them when they've been really close to it," Schmitz said.
Plenty is on the line Friday for both teams. With the new points system, a win over a returning playoff opponent counts pretty much for the maximum. Mitchell won its district last year, advancing to the second round.
Mitchell defeated Anclote 31-7 last week, but two of the touchdowns were on kick returns by Kym-mani King and Robert Graham.
"Take those two away and we only scored 17," Schmitz said. "I think my kids are mature enough to say, 'Hey, we're a lot better than that. We played hard, we're pretty athletic, but we just got some details that we're not doing well enough right now.' Technique things that go overlooked unless you know what you're looking at."
Schmitz said new defensive starters Canyon Albergo and Luis Rivera didn't light up the stat sheet, but showed out very well.
The Knights, meanwhile, fell 21-12 to Pinellas Park, with the Patriots getting three big plays to do most of their damage. A long TD run right before halftime was particularly dispiriting, putting River Ridge down 14-12.
"We're an aggressive defense, so we know that when we play teams that are talented with good skill players, they'll hit a big play or two. But the third kind of broke our backs. It was one too many," Benjamin said.
Mikey Roussos had 100 yards of total offense and D.J. Mann caught five passes for 58 yards to lead the offense, although based on recent seasons Friday's game won't feature many offensive fireworks. Neither team has surpassed 17 points in the past three matchups.
Clearly both teams, and their fans, will be ready whatever the case.
"There's definitely no lack of motivation," Benjamin said.