River Ridge High School is coming off its best football season in two decades.
A group laden with 27 seniors barged through the Class 2A SPSL Sound Division undefeated on its way to a 9-2 overall 2016 season that ended with a two-point playoff loss to eventual state runner-up Liberty.
Despite massive turnover that has left the Hawks with nearly as many freshmen on the varsity roster as seniors, players and coaches are confident similar results are possible in 2017, though far from guaranteed.
“I was just talking to one of my teammates about how it’s going to go,” junior running back and safety Ryley Larson said. “We actually have no idea how we’ll do. We’re looking forward to finding out.”
Talent moving up from an undefeated junior varsity and a strong C team, along with four freshmen moving straight to varsity, give River Ridge the tools to succeed.
“We have size, we have speed. We’ve got some really hungry guys ready for the excitement of making the plays they were watching other people make last season,” said Hawks head coach Steve Schultz, whose team opens Friday against Capital. “The big test will come when we get on the bus, ride over to Ingersoll Stadium and play under those Friday night lights.”
Of the 22 offensive and defensive positions, River Ridge will fill 20 with new starters. Only two-way linemen Herb Polu and Mika Faaitu, both 245-pound juniors, return.
“It’s a unique year, so the progression is a little faster,” Schultz said. Part of that progression is developing leaders beyond simply assuming seniors will take charge.
“The number one quality of a leader is that people will follow them. The natural leaders will step up,” Schultz said. “It’s not always a vocal thing. We’ve got guys who made every single day in the weight room, guys who are quiet on the field but make big plays. So far, I couldn’t be happier with our leadership.”
Larson tries to be one of the players leading by example.
“You can never be caught doing the wrong thing,” he said. “Leaders are followed by guys who see someone they want to be like.”
Carlo Cook, a junior guard and linebacker, demonstrated his commitment to the team by agreeing to switch positions. Because of a need, he moved from fullback to the offensive line.
“Leaders have to be role models. You show up early, help the coaches get ready for practice,” he said. “When we do drills, I’ll step out in front, show newer guys what needs to be done. You’ve also got to take control of any nonsense, make sure guys aren’t talking when they should be listening.”
Larson credited two seniors from last season’s squad, Alex Coleman and Ryan Blash, with giving him examples of how to lead while Cook praised two others, Zach Carter and Kellie Sanders.
Schultz believes his team has exceeded expectations for where it would be at the start of the season. Larson gives the coaching staff, an experienced group that includes not only 16th-year coach Schultz, but former Black Hills head coach Jack Zilla, credit.
“They know what they’re talking about,” he said. “If you don’t get something from one of them, another coach will say it in a different way and you’ll understand.”
The flow of information and leadership between coaches and players fuels the Hawks optimism.
“Preseason practice has been really smooth,” Larson said. “We’re working as a team. Last year we had some characters who weren’t always focused. This time, everyone’s about football 24/7.”