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Knights defied expectations for winning season

By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Nobody thought River Ridge would be this good.

Not even the Royal Knights' coach.

"In all honesty, I thought we were going to be somewhere around .500," said Keith Hooper, whose team went 9-2-5 including a 9-2-1 Class 2A, District 8 mark to earn the second seed in this week's tournament at Land O'Lakes.

The Royal Knights lost their leading scorer from last season -- not to mention eight other players -- to graduation.

Steve Doyle, a River Ridge assistant for three years before becoming Mitchell's coach last season, did not count on his former team playing as well, either.

The Knights' winning record, Doyle said, is a testament to Hooper's coaching acumen.

"He knows he lost some key offensive players," said Doyle, mentioning 2001 graduate and all-time leading scorer Lindsey Jones (108 goals).

"He puts his personnel in positions where it's going to be best for his team."

"You have to," Hooper said. "You've got to maximize the talent you have on the field."

Hooper has shuffled defenders, midfielders and forwards to win 128 games as River Ridge's only coach in 11 seasons. The most recent switch came when longtime defender Mandi Petrella became a midfielder.

"She was thrilled," Hooper said of Petrella, who has three goals and three assists.

With River Ridge's scoring reduction -- 42 goals compared to last season's 87 -- has come a greater emphasis on defense as well as timely scoring.

In the regular-season finale, the Knights got a goal from Courtney Austin, her first of the season, in the 73rd minute to tie Zephyrhills 2-2. Vicky Weatherholt netted her seventh goal in that game to help River Ridge overcome a 2-0 deficit.

"They've been able to make the best of the opportunities they've had this year," Hooper said of his forwards and midfielders.

Among that group is junior Stefanie Simon, who ranks second on the team in scoring with 21 points and is the Knights' assist leader with 11.

"We pretty much adapted (to the drop in offense)," Simon said. "I'm actually enjoying it more because I'm distributing the ball more."

Hooper said Simon, who had nine goals and 17 assists in two previous seasons, "has probably been our most consistent player."

As for the most consistent scorer, that's Sarah Slusak. The sophomore forward, whose five goals in a 7-0 win over Wesley Chapel this season tied Amy Hinmon's 1993-94 record for most goals in one game, leads the Knights with 15 goals and 36 points.

Slusak and Simon, as well as a steady defense led by junior sweeper Melissa Jones, have played well during the regular season, but the Knights have only one person to turn to when it comes to playoff experience -- goalkeeper Kat Mazella, who has five shutouts and a 1.50 goals-against average.

As the lone Knight remaining from the 1998-99 squad that lost to South Lake in the regional quarterfinals, Mazella has let her teammates know the importance of reaching the district final, which would qualify River Ridge for the regionals.

"They're all pretty nervous about (the district tourney)," said Mazella, a senior. "I just tell them to settle down and play your normal game."

Hooper is banking on Mazella's experience, Slusak's scoring and Simon's passing to lift River Ridge into the district final. That would would most likely mean a third game against top seed Land O'Lakes, which gave the Knights their only two losses (5-0 and 6-0) this season.

By that point, though, River Ridge would have already earned a regional berth.

"We think it's a real legitimate shot," Hooper said.

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