Coach Mike DeGennaro hopes a better line will help avoid last year's stumble.
By JOHN C. COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001
NEW PORT RICHEY -- In his first season as River Ridge head coach, Mike DeGennaro inherited a team that came within a whisker of the playoffs despite a brutally tough district. But a roster deep in skill position players, one of the county's top running backs, an experienced quarterback and a slew of seniors provided the coach with great hopes that stepping out of the shadow of his predecessor wouldn't be as difficult as some thought.
But to understand the kind of debut season DeGennaro had, consider, well, the debut game:
Needing about 15 yards to get into field-goal position in the final seconds against Sunshine Athletic Conference favorite Land O'Lakes, the Royal Knights went backwards on a holding penalty, a run for a loss and a sack, sending a tie game to overtime. There, the Royal Knights lost a 19-13 heartbreaker, and lost star Mike Tubolino to injury.
Without Tubolino the next week, Hillsborough handed River Ridge a 50-0 loss, and Zephyrhills and Chamberlain made it an 0-4 start for the new coach.
"Of course we'd like a better start this year," DeGennaro said. "After last year's beginning, and that was a tough schedule, it was hard to recover."
The Royal Knights did, winning their last four games and outscoring the opposition 127-43 to finish 5-5.
This year, the offensive line -- last year's Achilles' heel -- is improved and might be one of the best in the county. Quarterback Tim Dare is bigger, stronger and more experienced, and the backfield might be better than it was with Tubolino and Todd Sabean.
Defensively, a line anchored by Joey Mayo (82 tackles) and two outstanding outside linebackers in John Gilmore (92 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Adam Eberle (3.5 sacks) make that unit an improvement over last year.
"I like this team," DeGennaro said. "What I keep trying to explain to the kids is if they don't make mistakes and force mistakes, I think we've got a shot at winning every night."
The opener at Pasco and a home game the next week against SAC-favorite Wesley Chapel will test DeGennaro's theory that this team is better.
While Dare (36 of 102, 616 yards) had the fewest passing yards of any regular county starter last year, he has shown he can throw the ball given time.
He will have a nice corps of receivers, though untested, to throw to as Jared Tzoucalis returns from an injury and junior varsity starters Danny Grant, Chris Malone and Alex Wilson assume varsity roles. Wilson is 6 feet 5, Tzoucalis is 6-3, and converted running back Eberle is a big 6-3 target at tight end. He had a school-record 81-yard touchdown reception last year.
Eberle led the team in 2000 with 261 receiving yards, and four of his eight catches went for touchdowns.
If Dare can emerge as a complement to a backfield that DeGennaro is high on, the Royal Knights offense should score some points.
That will depend, however, on an improved line. Juniors Zach Pantas and Tony Egan will start at tackles, the guards will be Mike Witfoth, Nick Overbeck and Greg Colaluca, and sophomore center Steve Johnson, a starter last year, returns.
DeGennaro thinks last year's problem is solved.
"Oh definitely," he said. "We knew we were young last year except for Donald Brandt. We knew we were not as strong as we'd like to be. We have some decent athletes on the line and some size and strength this year."
Defensively, Mayo is the top returner on the line at tackle, and sophomores Devin Monroe (6-3, 299) or George Final (6-3, 245) could start. Noseguard Randy Scorca is a returning starter.
At outside linebacker, DeGennaro loves Gilmore, who will start at fullback, and Eberle, and in the middle Alan Minichino (another fullback) and Ryan Hernandez are solid. Defensive backs Bobby Chapman and Nick Disparti, and safeties Tzoucalis and Hoolihan are all experienced.
Junior varsity kicker Chris Hloska has been promoted to replace the strong-legged Paul Clapson and has looked good.
COLORS: Purple and silver
CLASS: Class 4A, District 6
PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1995, 1996, 1998
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: Lost to Lakeland 45-10
HEAD COACH: Mike DeGennaro (5-5, second season)
ASSISTANTS: Jack Homko, Gary Allen, Mike Marlin, Skip Glover, Gary Butler, Bill Linderman
DIRECTIONS JAMES VALENTINE STADIUM: From the west, take U.S. 19 to Ridge Road and turn east. Travel 7 miles to River Ridge Boulevard and turn south. Travel 1 mile to Town Center Road and turn east. School is 11/2 miles at the end of winding road. From the east, take S.R. 52 east to Moon Lake Road, turn south and travel 8 miles. Road curves into Ridge Road, turn south at River Ridge Boulevard and follow above directions.