There are two teams in the area who have a chance to win a football state title this year, but if you’re not from Gilchrist County you may not know about another area football team that was in the state championship game last season.
Riverside Christian School, a small private high school located in Trenton, is moving from 8-man football up to 11-man football this year.
But for the last four years, they’ve enjoyed an enormous amount of success on the gridiron.
The Wranglers advanced to three straight Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) 6-man title games, followed by an 8-man Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC) championship game appearance last year.
Riverside Christian won two out of three 6-man state titles and were 8-man state runners-up in 2021.
Steven Hall, who enters his eighth season as the head coach of the Wranglers, believes that success will carry over into 2022.
“We’ve got 11 seniors, so we have a group of young men and coaches who have been together for a few years now so the poise, the mentality, the maturity is there, it’s just adapting to more players on the field,” he said.
Riverside Christian will have around 30 players in their first year of 11-man football.
“In our area, you can basically say it’s 1A football,” Hall said. “If you run a roster of 30, that’s not bad.”
Senior Boaz Bray, who played for Bell last season, said that physicality will be the biggest difference between 8-man and 11-man football but he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s a big step,” said Bray (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), who will play tight end, defensive end and linebacker. “There’s just a few more people on the field the way I see it. We’ve got a lot to prove.”
Carter Hodge, a junior who played quarterback the past two years, moves to wide receiver and will also play cornerback this season.
Hodge, who said moving to receiver helps him learn coverages better and yell out audibles, said his team will have to listen to their coaches and “play as a whole” in order to be successful this season.
“We’ve always had a good team that listens to each other, but this year is more important than ever because this is our first year of 11-man so if we can just get the “We’ve always had a good team that listens to each other, but this year is more important than ever because this is our first year of 11-man so if we can just get the young guys to listen to the older guys and play as one, we should be good,” Hodge said.
The Wranglers will have a balanced offense in 2022.
“I think the key to our offense is to not turn it over and start fast, which opens up the passing game,” Hall said. “Big plays happen later in the game.”
Being a small school, the starters will go both ways.
“We’ve always had confidence so it’s just capitalizing on that, not getting too cocky, and going in with a good mindset,” said senior Trevor Velasco, who will play running back and linebacker.
Hall has been running the defense for the past eight years but this year he has a new defensive coordinator, Billy Tisko, whose defense shut out St. Francis Catholic Academy, 56-0, in the spring game.
“Defensively we’re very stingy with a quick front four,” Hall said. “The back end is very athletic. He (Tisko) runs a great philosophy and he does a great job with the kids.”
Riverside Christian will play area teams Oak Hall School, Bell, and Bronson.
“Much respect to them,” Hall said. “We just hope that when we play them, we can limit the mistakes, stay humble, and maybe give ourselves an opportunity late in the game to win it but we’re going to go in there very lowly, and very humbly, and take it one play at a time.”
The Wranglers will travel to Dixie County (Cross City) on Thursday, Aug. 18, for the preseason kickoff classic.
“The showcase games these kids get to play in is something they’ve been wanting for many years,” Hall said. “You’ve watched an 8-year body of work finally get opened. I’m thankful for the players that came and helped get this program to where it’s at now. It took everybody.”
Hall said that in order for this to be a successful season the Wranglers will have to stay healthy, humble, and take it one game at a time.
Football isn’t the only sport that has had success at Riverside Christian. The boys programs have done extremely well.
“Since I’ve been there, boys basketball has been to state four or five teams,” said Brandon Raines, who enters his seventh year as the school’s athletics director. “Last year we actually lost to a team from Georgia on a buzzer beater in the Southeastern Christian Conference state championship game.”
Riverside Christian also participates in volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, and archery. Plus, they will be starting girls basketball this year and will compete in the SSAC for girls and boys basketball, as well as softball and baseball.
Raines is excited about the future of the program.
“We were in the FHSAA our first two years because we were in the Florida Christian Athletic League so you have to be in both, but we’re going to reapply next year so we should be independent in football and play SSAC as well (2023-24),” he said.