Riverview High (9-3) was the last local football team standing in the 2021 Florida High School Athletic Association playoffs, but the Rams stand no more.
The Rams lost for the second time in less than a month to Venice High on Nov. 19, this time in the second round of the Class 8A tournament. The first game was closely battled for a half — it was 7-7 at its midpoint — before the Indians exploded on the Rams' defense and won 42-7.
The second meeting was never close. After allowing a Venice touchdown on the game's first possession — a pass from senior Ryan Browne to junior Keyon Sears — the Rams got trapped at their own 2 yard line when sophomore Charles Lester III stepped out of bounds on the kick return. One play later, junior quarterback Will Carter Jr. was intercepted by Venice junior Sage Youtzy. Venice quickly made it 14-0, which became 21-0 following a three-and-out by Riverview.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Rams muffed the ball on the short kick and the Indians recovered. Once again, they would score a few plays later to go up 28-0.
The pattern of Rams mistakes leading to Venice points continued in the second quarter. At halftime, the score was 56-0. To their credit, the Rams didn't quit and scored second-half touchdowns on a a long touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Dawson to senior wide receiver Jaron Glover and on a goal line reverse from senior wide receiver Johnell Williams. Riverview also got an interception from Lester III. But the game still ended 56-14, a disappointing way for a great season to conclude.
Coach Josh Smithers said he is proud of the way his team fought in 2021. He pointed out the team's offensive line as the group that showed the most improvement from the beginning of the season to the end. The line's push is what allowed the team's running backs to gain steady yardage and, in turn, allowed the team to control the ball and the pace of the game.
"We had a harder schedule than we have had in the past," Smithers said. "We came out flat in the first game (against Seminole High) but we recovered and played well for the most part after that. This year was a good step for our program. We're heading in the right direction. Obviously we didn't play well against Venice, but in general, those tough games will help us in the playoffs."
Riverview had a strength of schedule of 36.7 this season, according to MaxPreps. That's a more difficult schedule than Venice and six of the other MaxPreps top-10 teams in the state played and it is something Smithers said the Rams will continue to do, especially since the team proved it could handle the challenge.
Next year, though, the Rams won't have this year's senior class to lean on. That includes, among others, Glover, a Michigan State commit; linebacker Tyre Smith, the team's leading tackler; running back Jay'den Birch, who ended the season with more than 1,000 rushing yards; defensive lineman Eli Renick, one of the team's captains; Bo and Brady Bloom, steady presences at linebacker (Bo also doubled as the team's punter, a not-insignificant responsibility); and safety Charlie Cooper, who came up with some important interceptions in the season's final games.
It's obvious to say that Riverview will miss these players, but, well, they will. Many of those players and others have been on the Rams varsity team for all four years of their high school careers. They were part of the Rams team that went to the Final Four in 2018, challenging a Mandarin High team that had two Division I wide receivers and a quarterback, Carson Beck, now a freshman at Georgia. In fact, they made the playoffs every year. In a competitive area like ours, that's an accomplishment to carry with pride. It will be strange watching the Rams from the sideline in 2022 and not seeing those guys out there. (I am, however, quite excited to follow Glover's journey as a Spartan, where he will team with former Rams — and Indians — defensive back Charles Brantley).
But don't expect the Rams' playoff streak to end without these seniors, as important and talented as they are. Riverview still returns heaps of talent, including Lester III, the wide receiver/defensive back getting looks from Michigan State, West Virginia and Indiana, among other schools. It also includes Will Carter Jr., who showed flashes of potential through the air but always impressed with his running ability. With a full varsity season under his belt, a strong offseason could lead to a breakout performance in 2022 for Carter Jr. And sophomore running back Ahmad Hunter impressed when spelling Birch late in the year, including a 128-yard playoff performance against Steinbrenner High.
Defensively, the Rams will be young, but they do return junior linebacker Deshaun Olave, who had 32 tackles in the regular season (four tackles for loss), as well as junior safety Triston Parsons, who recorded 19 tackles and an interception as the Rams' last line of defense.
The Rams offseason will consist of physical training, of course, but also character development, something the team started doing last offseason. Over 10 weeks, Riverview's coaches will give presentations on different topics pertaining to being better people, then the team discusses the topic all together. Smithers said it was good for the team and got them thinking about things other than football.
Of course, the on-field stuff still matters.
"We're excited about getting back to work with out underclassmen," Smithers said. "We're excited to keep getting better."