The Royal Knights need to overcome a lack of experience and a lingering disappointment after last season's veteran squad went 3-7.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published September 3, 2004
NEW PORT RICHEY - The senior class was the hardest-working, most talented Mike DeGennaro had coached in his four seasons at River Ridge. More than 25 strong, they led the Royal Knights in scoring, rushing, passing, receiving, tackles and sacks.
And they won only three games.
River Ridge was the county's most snakebitten, hardluck team last season. What hurt more? Watching Wesley Chapel hold on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the game's last play? Watching Gulf overcome a 10-point deficit? Seeing Drew Weatherford run for a touchdown in the Kansas tiebreaker to give Land O'Lakes the win in overtime? Or leading Pasco by a touchdown in the last minutes, only to fall by a point?
No, it was watching a playoff spot slip away to Mitchell when a last-second, 31-yard field goal fell wide right by an inch. The Knights lost six games by eight points or less, and now must rebuild without the bulk of their leadership, talent and production from that difficult season.
DeGennaro wants his new starters to remember how hard that group worked. But he wants his new team to learn the lessons that team never did.
"Just because you work hard and you do everything that's asked of you in practice doesn't mean you're going to walk on the field and win Friday night," the coach said. "These kids need to understand that group did everything it could leading up to Friday night, and on Friday night they didn't put it together the way we planned.
"The younger kids need to learn from their mistakes."
DeGennaro will be counting on an inexperienced crew to execute what last season's veterans struggled to do. The only returning offensive starter is guard Tanner Kielty. But DeGennaro has seen positive signs. "The attitude has been good," he said, "in that some of them are willing to change positions if that's what it takes."
Phil Petrini gives the team an athletic and accurate option at quarterback, winning the job over the strong-armed Mike Gregory, sidelined with an irregular heartbeat.
The offense will count on 5-foot-8, 150-pound Sam Bell, a returning scatback who brings speed, elusiveness and some added muscles to handle the increased workload.
Chris Wilson and Matt Sell are in the mix at fullback, while Matt Galida, Seth Majors, Pano Toumblares and Matt Wilbur all could carry the ball.
Junior varsity promotions will build the offensive line around Kielty, right guard Zach Johnson and left tackle Zach Dys. Adam Clarke, Derrick Stoll and Zach McDevitt bring speed and hands to receiver.
Cameron Baker replaces his standout brother Matt at kicker. On defense, the top returners are Sell at nose guard, Johnson and Wilson at linebacker and Bell at cornerback. Undersized and inexperienced, the unit does possess football smarts.
"They're good at pre-snap reads," DeGennaro said. "I think we can do a little bit more than we've done in the past. They're definitely not as big as we've been, but up front we're definitely quicker."
Hopefully, the rest of this year's cast are quick learners, too, so they can avoid last year's fate.
"That group worked hard, they did what it took," DeGennaro said. "But there was a letdown here and there and you can look at the films and see when somebody took a break on a play here and there.
"These kids are trying hard to get it right and do it right on every single play."