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Riverview High football tries to move past emotional loss

The last-second 35-33 defeat against CAI was the latest in a string of tough games for the Rams.

The Rams' defense puts CAI running back Antwan Raymond on the ground.
The Rams' defense puts CAI running back Antwan Raymond on the ground.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Head Coach Josh Smithers and the Riverview High football team are trying to focus on the positives. 

For 47 minutes on Oct. 13, the Rams (3-4) got the better of Clearwater Academy International (3-4), a program whose record, battered by an elite, inter-state schedule, belies its talent. 

The Knights have nine players committed to NCAA Division I schools and more who may get that designation in the coming years. That includes a four-star offensive linemen in senior Jason Zandamela, who is committed to the University of Southern California; four-star senior defensive back Isaiah Thomas, who is committed to the University of Miami; and three-star defensive lineman Sean Sevillano Jr., who is committed to the University of Notre Dame. 

Yet the Rams led the Knights for much of the game. Riverview took advantage of CAI mistakes, getting 10 points off an interception by senior Jayson Evans and a muffed CAI punt. The Rams also got a field goal on the game's first possession after executing a surprise onside kick. Coupled with generally strong play, Riverview used these advantages to gain a 33-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. 

That's when the tide turned. The full explanation of what happened in the fourth quarter is its own story; the short version is CAI used big plays to get back into the game and cut the Rams' lead to 33-26 with 2:25 remaining. A series of miscues and clock stoppages in the final few minutes — along with some decisions by the officiating crew that angered Smithers and his staff — gave CAI the ball with 0.7 seconds remaining, enough time for a final play from the Rams' 34-yard line. The Knights used it to throw a Hail Mary, which junior receiver Makih Johnson caught over three Rams defenders. Riverview walked off the field and headed straight to its locker room in silence. 

For Smithers and the Rams, the question now is what happens next?

"I read a quote this weekend," Smithers said Oct. 16, three days after the loss. "I think it was from (University of Alabama Head Coach) Nick Saban. He said, 'Toughness and discipline is developed through the hard,' meaning hard times. We talked about that in our locker room today. We have to take the positives. We outplayed one of the best teams in Florida, in any classification. That's what we are capable of doing. But we have to prepare well each week and we have to finish. We had a great practice today. I'm excited to get back at it tomorrow and to keep getting better." 

Rams junior DJ Johnson (8) and senior Braxton Thomas celebrate a Johnson touchdown run.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Smithers said he has once been part of a game with as wild of an ending. When he was the coach of Cardinal Mooney High, his Cougars beat The Out-of-Door Academy on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the final seconds. Of course, that ending was wild in a positive way for Smithers; this particular sensation is new.

It was the team's third-straight loss after starting the season 3-1. Each brought the Rams a different kind of disappointment: a 35-14 rivalry game loss to Venice High (5-2) started the slide; a 20-10 loss to Berkeley Prep (5-2) was caused in part, Smithers said, by a bad week of preparation that carried into the game; and the CAI loss stung because of how easily it could have — perhaps should have — gone the other way. 

This week will bring the Rams no less of a challenge as Riverview hits the road to play Manatee High (6-1). The Hurricanes are coming off a bye week, but previously suffered their first loss of the season to Venice, 56-24. As difficult as the past three weeks have been, the Rams are now confident they can hang with anyone in the state. The Rams-Hurricanes game could come down to one particular battle: the Rams' running game, which has generated 22 touchdowns in 2023, versus the Hurricanes' front seven, which has 65 tackles for loss. 

If there is a silver lining for the Rams through the losing skid, it is that the playoffs are still well within reach. The Oct. 10 Florida High School Athletic Association rankings had the Rams ranked third in Region 3 of Class 4S. As the top-eight teams from each region make the postseason, Riverview should be in the thick of things even after the CAI loss: The ninth-ranked team in the region, Sarasota High, is 0-7. 

A win against the Hurricanes would be a worthy bounceback. 

"We have learned some valuable lessons," Smithers said. "Hopefully we can apply those and find a way to come out on top." 



Ryan Kohn

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.

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