Riverview High football coach Josh Smithers didn’t expect to be in this position — in more ways than one.
“I didn’t expect us to have three losses already,” he said, laughing.
It’s been a year of learning for the Rams (5-3), who at the beginning of the season had the talent to be a playoff contender, but had to figure out how its pieces fit together to create a formidable whole. Junior quarterback Sean White, a transfer from Cardinal Mooney who hadn’t played the position in three seasons — a wide receiver in the interim — was replacing Arthur Brantley Jr., now at Austin Peay University. Two talented running backs in senior Ali Boyce and sophomore Michael “Poodah” Hayes were expected to carry a large load, and four-star wideout Malachi Wideman was White’s primary target.
But the offense sputtered to start the season. A 19-2 loss to defending state champion Venice High in the team’s home opener on Aug. 31 put an early damper on the Rams, and though the offense produced more points the next week against Palmetto High, the game still ended in a 42-35 Rams loss. And even in the team’s wins, Smithers said, the team faced the same problems: Turnovers and penalties. They were beating themselves, Smithers said, and it didn’t have to be that way.
Other things plagued the team, too. Wideman missed a few games with injury. Boyce, too, suffered a concussion and an arm injury, he said, and missed a game. When adding a new signal-caller to the mix, those things make a difference. White’s offense took longer to click than he anticipated, White said.
“We were getting used to each other,” he said. “We were learning new schemes. It’s just now getting to where I want it to be.”
It all clicked for Riverview, ironically, in their third loss, on Oct. 5 against Newsome High (3-5). Newsome runs a Wing-T offense, not one typically seen at the high school level (or anywhere) these days. It was a tricky matchup made trickier by those things that haunted Riverview all season showing up at the worst time. The Rams had three turnovers in the first half and Smithers said the defense “couldn’t stop them.” The Wolves led 31-0 after one quarter. It was 37-10 at the half. It served as a wake-up call to Riverview both to not take any opponent lightly and to clean up their own bad habits.
“Not much needed to be said,” Smithers said, of the mood in the locker room. “I just told them, ‘We can do it if we want to.’ ”
Riverview outscored the Wolves 35-14 in the second half. It still resulted in a 51-45 loss, but the mood of the team was drastically different, Boyce said, with everyone feeling “a little bitter.” If the Rams still wanted to accomplish things this season, they had to do so with no wiggle room for another loss.
The next game was a big one. District rival Manatee High (6-3) was hosting the Rams. For the third year in a row, the Rams walked out victorious. Boyce ran for 200 yards and a touchdown, and also caught a touchdown pass from White, who previously threw one to Wideman. The offensive line was dominant and didn’t hurt itself with false starts and holding penalties. The defense, well-rested from their offense’s ability to control the ball, held Manatee to less than 200 yards of offense. The game ended in a 21-14 Rams victory.
Now, despite the unexpected losses, the Rams hold destiny in their hands. A win Oct. 26 against (Hillsborough) Riverview High (3-6) would clinch the district title for the Rams, their third in a row. Even though the team has experienced more hiccups this year than last, Smithers isn’t any less excited about its postseason prospects. Teams want to be playing their best ball at season’s end, and the Rams appear to be doing just that.
And if you think the team is taking the Sharks lightly, think again. The Rams learned their lesson against the Wolves. Boyce and White both said they’re working harder than ever in practice to make sure a loss like that doesn’t happen again.
Their coach agrees.
“If you told me at the beginning of the year we’d be playing (Hillsborough) Riverview for the district title, I’d take it,” Smithers said. “We’re in control, and that’s where we want to be.”
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.