Where: Friday, October 13, 2017 – 7:30 p.m.

Where: Bulldogs Stadium, 6335 12th St., Zephyrhills, FL 33542

TV: Spectrum Sports (Channel 47, and HD 1147) and the Spectrum TV App

Coaches: RIVER RIDGE – Ryan Benjamin (7th season, 46-26); ZEPHYRHILLS – Nick Carroll (2nd season, 13-4)

About the matchup:

            River Ridge enters Bulldogs Stadium as the hunted. The Royal Knights have spoiled Zephyrhills’ hopes of a district title in each of the last two seasons. In 2016, with the score tied 14-14, River Ridge took control and scored the final 17 points of the game to win 31-14. Once again the winner of the game will stay perfect in district play and move into sole possession of first place in 5A District 8. The new FHSAA playoff format is all about points, but winning a district championship automatically puts a team into the postseason. So winning this game will move one of these teams closer to a playoff appearance.

            The Royal Knights will have two quarterbacks getting their turn to run the offense: junior Kyle St. John and senior Devin Gallo. Both have the big responsibility of spreading the wealth with the number of weapons on this side of the ball for River Ridge. So far this season the Royal Knights have ten players with a rushing touchdown and six players with a touchdown reception. Senior running back Austin Vellucci is one of two players to lead the team with three rushing touchdowns. Also with him at three rushing scores is senior transfer (Fivay) Jason Utegg who has come in and gained the respect of his teammates to the point where they named him a team captain. The offense will also be relying on talented junior wide receiver D.J. Mann (12 receptions, 173 yards, 2 TD) and senior receiver – Columbia commit – Mikey Roussos (11 receptions, 226 yards, 2 TD). These are two of River Ridge’s most impressive and dynamic playmakers on the roster.

            On defense River Ridge has two talented defensive ends that have combined for seven and a half sacks this season: senior Thomas Carrano and junior Tyler Poirier. “They have a selfless position,” said head coach Ryan Benjamin. “They make plays but also have to take themselves out of plays to allow others to make tackles and stops.” The linebacker core of Jason Utegg, Anthony Grassi and Anthony Roussos has combined for 103 tackles and 13 sacks. All three are strong defenders and go after the ball. The secondary is all about the cornerbacks: senior Bryce Smith (Fivay transfer) and senior Anthony Kendall (Anclote transfer). The two have combined for nine interceptions and 29 pass deflections. Kendall has taken over for Mikey Roussos, who was a 3rd team all-state defensive back in 2016. “Kendall has stepped up and for him to be in there ahead of Mikey is a testament to how good he has to be to do that,” said Benjamin.

            Zephyrhills will need a strong game from senior quarterback Charles Harrison III. This young man has been a starter for three years and is more comfortable in his second season in Nick Carroll’s offense. “There is a great sense of trust between Charles and our receivers,” said Carroll. “I think our guys like succeeding for one another and it is cool to see.” The Bulldogs running game gets a big boost thanks to senior back Elijah Thomas who has eight rushing touchdowns to go along with 614 yards on the ground. In the receiving game Zephyrhills has four players with touchdown receptions and all of them are juniors: Jaquan Sheppard (7 TD), Tre’pavis Mobley (7 TD), Tyreese Wigfall (3 TD) and Cartrell Strong (1 TD). One big reason for the offense’s success has been thank to, as Nick Carroll calls them, the “Hoggies” on the offensive line. All five linemen are returning from last season, which has led to an increase in offensive production.

            Zephyrhills continues its strength in the trenches on the other side of the ball with senior defensive end Sterlin Williams. He is a three-year starter and leads the team with six and a half sacks. At middle linebacker is senior Zac Masci, who has been dubbed “the general” by Nick Carroll. Next to Zac is outside linebacker Nyjohn Moody. The junior is explosive and fast to the ball. There are three seniors starting in the secondary: strong safety Elijah Thomas, free safety Myles Carter, and Tycesen Sampson. All three have great ability to play the ball and attack their man. They hope to use their strengths to grab a victory at home.

Three and Out:

1.      Alums at the Helm: Both head coaches are alums of the school they are now in charge of leading to the postseason. Ryan Benjamin is a 1996 graduate of River Ridge; Nick Carroll is a 1998 graduate of Zephyrhills.

2.      Dominating Streak: River Ridge enters Friday night having won 23 consecutive district games. The Royal Knights have not lost in district play since November 1, 2013 – a 29-27 loss to Ridgewood.

3.      Former Gator Leads the Defense: Zephyrhills Defensive Coordinator Bryan Thomas has built up quite the credentials. He is one of the best players to ever play for Zephyrhills high school and went on to Florida where he played under Urban Meyer and won two national titles in 2006 and 2008.