tampabay.com

Rams prepare with optimism

For most of the players at Ridgewood football practice, the wait for the 2007 season will be excruciating.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published May 23, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - For most of the players at Ridgewood football practice, the wait for the 2007 season will be excruciating.

There may not be another school in the county brimming with the same expectations, the same eagerness and the same energy the Rams have.

"Our kids were upset last year, " coach Chris Taylor said. "They want to get back out there."

Added running back Byronell Arline: "We're hungry, like we missed Thanksgiving last year."

For years the county doormat, the Rams have evolved into a potential county power. Taylor has built the team from a 1-9 season in 2005 to a 6-4 record in 2006 to a district and playoff contender in 2007.

This spring, he was so set at each position that he was able to fine tune the Ridgewood engine, as opposed to the tradition of rebuilding.

"These kids have played together for so long, they kind of understand each other now, " Taylor said. "That allowed us to really concentrate on some other things this spring. As a result, things were a little bit more mellow this year."

Taylor's biggest fear might be overconfidence. The Rams were 6-4 last year, lost three of their four games by a field goal or less, and will have 10 senior starters on offense and nine to 10 on defense.

On paper, they can lay claim to being the county's best team.

In reality, Taylor still thinks his squad has to prove its worth on the field.

"Obviously, we're going to be a lot more confident, " he said, "But we didn't set the world on fire; we lost four ballgames."

The Rams will field a strong, cohesive and big offensive line by county standards, led by John Karakaris, 6 feet 4, 280 pounds. They return starting tight end Will Nichols, as well.

At quarterback, T.J. Haab is a returning starter, and Taylor said he had an especially good spring. Last year, he threw for 400 yards and seven touchdowns.

"T.J. really came on this spring, " Taylor said. "He made some major progress in the passing game."

Charley Minichino, who started the second half of the 2006 season and threw for 554 yards and nine touchdown, was hobbled by an injury this spring; but he remains a viable option, as well.

Ridgewood also returns Arline, the county's two-time defending rushing champion. He set a school record with 1, 717 yards and 21 scores last season.

On defense, star middle linebacker Ben Perry, who led the county with 164 tackles, is back to head up a unit that held seven of 10 opponents under 20 points last season.

"We've been building this, " Taylor said. "I coached these kids when they were incoming freshmen. Now, they want to compete in the playoffs."

John C. Cotey can be reached at 813-909-4612 or johncotey@gmail.com.

Coach: Chris Taylor

Last year: The Rams went 6-4 but suffered crucial losses in district action, dropping a pair of 3-point games that knocked them from the playoffs.

District: Class 4A-8 (Central, Land O'Lakes, River Ridge, Springstead, Tarpon Springs).

Did you know?: Last season, the Rams won six games, tying a school record set in 1985 and 2002.

Breakout player: When the college recruiters show up to check out running back Byronell Arline and linebacker Ben Perry, they won't be able to help but notice hulking offensive lineman John Karakaris. A 6-foot-4, 280-pound rising senior at right tackle, Karakaris will be the one opening many of the holes for Arline to run through. Taylor thinks he is still filling out and could be 300 pounds by the start of the season, and he says that more and more colleges are taking notice.

Who's back: The rushing champion. The county's leading tackler. Most of one of the better offensive lines in the county. A solid group of experienced defensive backs. That's more than enough to make the Rams the frontrunner for the SAC title. The Rams lost very little and have two competent quarterbacks to choose from in T.J. Haab and Charlie Minichino (combined 954 yards, 16 touchdowns last year). With experience all around, the Rams just need to learn how to win close games.

What's new: The Rams will compete in relatively the same district, this year adding Land O'Lakes, one of the county's top programs. That will increase the difficulty of making the playoffs, but when the Gators were loaded last year, they only eked out an early win over the Rams. Expect the district title to go to the winner of their Nov. 2 matchup.

Spring revelation: Gulf transfer Curt Holt won't come off the field much for Ridgewood after impressing this spring. He'll start at outside linebacker and wide receiver, and is one of the few missing pieces of the Rams' puzzle. "He's a heck of an athlete, " Taylor said.