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After a taste, Rams and Mustangs want more next year

Ridgewood and Mitchell made the playoffs for the first time. Now, can they return?

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- As playoff debuts go, it wasn't the greatest.

Mitchell lost by 33 points. Ridgewood fell by 42. But for both schools, this year's teams were the first so privileged to receive postseason drubbings.

"The first step is to get there," said Mustangs coach Scott Schmitz, whose team lost to Melbourne Palm Bay 47-14 after reaching the playoffs in the program's second varsity season. "At the beginning of the year, if you'd asked our kids if they'd be in the playoffs, I think most would have doubted it."

Mitchell didn't have to wait long to make the playoffs, but it took Ridgewood 19 years, making its 48-6 loss to Belleview a historic setback.

First-year coach Troy Cornwell knew something had changed at Ridgewood when he realized how much he missed football last week and saw the same emotions from his players.

"A lot of times when you're 1-8, you get to the last game and it's a relief," said Cornwell, whose team matched a school record with six wins. "You want it to end. But this year, I really miss it. I miss going to practice, being around the kids. They seem to miss it, too."

After a year in which six county teams made the playoffs -- double the previous high -- the Mustangs and Rams have a new challenge to face in the offseason: repeating their success. Both faced tough teams on the road in their first playoff games and approached the games from a learning perspective.

"They've got a taste of it now, and because of who we played, they see how far they have to go to be able to compete in the playoffs," said Schmitz, whose team finished 4-7. "I think this is very big for us. The kids now see that this goal is attainable."

Despite a large senior class, Mitchell is in good position to contend for a return trip to the playoffs in 2003. The entire backfield -- sophomore quarterback Spencer Brown, freshman tailback D.J. Crosby, sophomore fullback Ricky Moise and sophomore wingback James Campbell -- has two years ahead of it, as do key offensive linemen Mike Toncich and Jeremy Lane. Another returning starter is junior guard Mike Despota.

"We lose some quality seniors, but we were primarily a young team this year," Schmitz said. "We're in good shape that way. I think they were disappointed with the way their season ended, but I'd be disappointed if they weren't. It's a sign they want more."

Ridgewood loses its top two stars in Adamm Oliver, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and led the county in tackles, and Sean Jester, who had more than 500 yards rushing and receiving with a combined 13 touchdowns. Of the 28 varsity players this season, 17 were seniors, but Cornwell hopes next year's senior class will answer the call the way this year's did.

"What we lose is a lot of leadership," Cornwell said. "Not just Oliver and Jester, but Tom Newell on the offensive line and Kale Durocher, who never came off the field."

Quarterback Pete Bennett, who passed for 778 yards and six touchdowns, returns, and the leading candidates to take over the running game are speedy Anthony Ponds, who had only five carries, and sophomore Mike Galizia, a junior-varsity standout. Cornwell expects junior linebacker Dean Brooks to step into a vocal leadership role for next year as well.

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