It has been a long time since a football game between Sarasota High and Riverview High meant so much.
Since 2004, in fact. That is the last time the two programs met in the postseason, according to MaxPreps' history of the rivalry; the Rams won that game 23-0.
On Friday, it will happen again.
Neither the Sailors (5-4) or the Rams (4-6) expected to be here. Both teams lost their regular-season finales, entering the postseason on a down note. Both went on the road last week, the start of the postseason, as underdogs. And both came out victorious: the Sailors won 30-20 over Manatee High (6-4) and the Rams won 29-15 over Gulf Coast High (8-3).
Now they will renew their rivalry at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sarasota High, with a spot in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 4S regional finals on the line. The Rams won the season's first matchup 14-0 on the road Oct. 28, extending their winning streak over the Sailors to 11.
In Sarasota's mind, there will be no better time to break that streak than now. The Sailors made a key change before their game against Manatee, inserting junior quarterback Michael Bendever into the lineup after not starting him all season. It worked: Bendever completed nine of 16 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. That last point is an important one to Coach Brody Wiseman, but he was happy with the yardage and scores, too. The Sailors used a vertical passing attack that had been missing from the team's offense this season.
"It's a part of what we've done since I've been here, just not this season," Wiseman said. "We have been depending on our run game and that has been great. But if you go back and look at the Riverview game, we have no passing offense, really. We were turning the ball over. Mike took care of the football and made great plays and extended some plays. Down the field, he was a weapon.
"If we don't get that performance from him tonight, we probably don't win this game."
Wiseman said Bendever had been getting a share of first-team reps all season, so he did have some familiarity with his teammates' tendencies and was able to develop good timing with them. A live game is different than practice, but Bendever was not fazed.
"I was just happy (to be starting)," Bendever said. "Once I got here I was a little nervous, but mostly happy. I just wanted to get the win. I know I can throw a good ball, so I knew I could execute things and give our receivers a chance."
When Wiseman told his team postgame that they would be playing Riverview, the Sailors erupted in cheers and claps. Asked about what a rematch means to his team, Wiseman kept things more low-key.
"They got us the first time," Wiseman said. "I felt like we played a good game, a game that our kids were capable of winning. That didn't happen, unfortunately. But my kids are excited to get another crack at it. It will be exciting."
On the other side of things, Riverview feels like it has been given a second chance at the 2022 season. Coach Josh Smithers said his players thought their postseason opportunity was dashed by a 14-7 home loss to Cardinal Mooney High (4-6) on Nov. 1. After playing the waiting game, they received help, in part from Booker High (6-5), which beat Rams regional foe Lakewood Ranch High (6-4) in the regular season's final week. The loss knocked Lakewood Ranch out of the postseason. The Rams got in, in part thanks to Riverview's strength of schedule, among other factors.
Smithers said his team has been determined not to squander the opportunity it has been handed.
"Last week when we came back to practice, you could tell guys were locked in," Smithers said. "We had one of the best (practices) we have had all year last Wednesday, and after that, we felt good (about their chances). Like we told them, once you're in, everybody's starting from the same spot. You just have to go get the team in front of you that week."
The Rams went and got Gulf Coast. Sophomore running back DJ Johnson sprinted for 182 yards and two touchdowns, with the Rams offensive line pushing around Sharks defenders to open holes. It was the first time all season Gulf Coast allowed an opposing players to crack even 100 yards on the ground. On defense, the Rams held the Sharks' four-way rushing attack to 72 yards. Like Sarasota, the Riverview passing attack has struggled at times in 2022, but against Gulf Coast, junior quarterback Jackson Dawson found senior tight end Luke Petitta for a 50-yard score, then hit junior wideout/defensive back Charles Lester III for a 15-yard score.
Smithers said he remembers watching the last Riverview-Sarasota playoff game on television, as it was broadcast live locally. Smithers said more than the game itself, he remembers how packed the stadium was.
"People were 10 deep against the fences," Smithers said. "Football is just more fun when Riverview and Sarasota are both good and in the playoffs. And now we get a chance to play each other. I expect a good crowd and I know Sarasota is going to be prepared and so will be. It should be a heck of a game."
- Also playing Friday is Cardinal Mooney, which will travel to face John Carroll Catholic (8-1) at 7:30 p.m. The Cougars won three-straight games to end the regular season and snag the fourth and final seed in their Class 1S region. John Carroll won the teams' first game 26-3 on Oct. 14.