NEW PORT RICHEY — If River Ridge was going to pull off a Class 5A, Region 3 quarterfinal victory over Port Orange Atlantic on Friday night, the Royal Knights were going to need a perfect game on both sides of the football.
River Ridge was able to drive the ball steadily downfield on its opening possession, but quarterback Trenton Hawks was picked off by Atlantic linebacker Tyler Berrong, who returned the interception for a touchdown.
That play alone helped swing momentum to the Sharks and the Royal Knights were never able to recover. Despite a valiant comeback attempt, River Ridge fell behind 28-0 en route to a 41-14 final score at the Jim Valentine Sports Complex.
“The kids are very resilient and I knew they would continue to fight back throughout the game,” River Ridge coach Ryan Benjamin said. “Some people would say one was the one that did it, but we’ve faced adversity all season long and I’ve seen them respond to situations.”
River Ridge finishes the season at 8-3 and bows out in the first round for only the second time in Ryan Benjamin’s tenure at the school. The team’s outlook is bright, however, as Hawks is only a sophomore and should have two more years as the program’s starting quarterback.
Down 7-0, River Ridge (8-3) was unable to generate anything out of its second drive, going for it on fourth and short and failing. Atlantic found the end zone again, as Aaron Manning strolled in from 22 yards for the game’s second score.
Atlantic (8-3) didn’t stop there in the first half, with running back Aaron Walton tacking on a 15-yard touchdown run to give the Sharks a commanding 22-0 lead. Almost three minutes later, the Sharks got their fourth touchdown of the half, with Manning connecting on a 45-yard score.
It looked as if River Ridge would head into intermission down 28-0, but the Royal Knights cut into the score thanks to a Hawks to Cole Castro touchdown pass.
Another River Ridge touchdown, a 1-yard scoring run from Anthony Roussos, cut the Sharks’ lead to 28-14 just before the fourth quarter. But momentum swung the other way soon after when Walton returned a kickoff 97 yards to give Atlantic a 35-14 advantage. That Sharks exclusively ran the ball in the fourth quarter to burn game clock.
“We have a very young group of kids,” Benjamin added. “It was good for some of these young players to be able to get some valuable experience as a junior or sophomore. We only graduate two starters and everyone else returns. We return our entire offensive line and that to me is huge.”
Region football semifinals
All games 7:30 p.m. next Friday.
Class 2A, Region 3
• No. 3 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Northside Christian
• No. 4 Admiral Farragut at No. 1 Cambridge Christian
Class 3A, Region 3
• No. 5 Clearwater Central Catholic at No. 1 Berkeley Prep
Class 4A, Region 3
• No. 4 Clewiston at No. 1 Lakewood
• No. 3 Tampa Catholic at No. 2 Delray Beach American Heritage
Class 5A, Region 3
• No. 8 Chamberlain at No. 4 Jesuit
Class 5A, Region 2
• No. 4 Nature Coast at No. 1 Orlando Jones
Class 6A, Region 2
• No. 5 Clearwater at No. 1 Gaither
• No. 3 Lake Minneola at No. 2 Largo
Class 7A, Region 3
• No. 3 Manatee at No. 2 Mitchell
Class 7A, Region 2
• No. 5 Bloomingdale at No. 1 Armwood
• No. 6 Tampa Bay Tech at No. 2 Lakeland
Class 8A, Region 2
• No. 4 Steinbrenner at No. 1 Sarasota Riverview