The secret to Riverside Military Academy’s success on the football field this season wasn’t so much their current flock of talent, or the process of building a playoff-caliber program.
Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of trust in the person next to you to see change happen.
Riverside Military has been a revolving door of students of many different backgrounds and places coming and going in short increments. But within the Eagles locker room is a core group of football players that remained.
Despite all the bumps in the road that involved back-to-back, to back losing campaigns, a coaching change and even dealing with the high-turnover rate within the school, those many veterans on the Eagles chose to weather a storm.
“People had a chance to leave, but they came back,” senior quarterback Isaac Teasley, a three-year starter for the Eagles, said Tuesday. “Trusting in them to come back and play with us one more year and one more year again is what created this team, the best them we’ve had in a long time. Trusting in your teammates is the biggest thing you can take from this team we have now.”
That same group is now in the midst of something truly special under coach Nick Garrett, now headed to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2006. The No. 23 seeded Eagles (6-5), who knocked off No. 10 seeded George Walton Academy for the program’s first GHSA playoff victory last week, have an opportunity to keep the magic going when they face No. 7 seed and ninth-ranked Fellowship Christian (9-1) this Friday night in Roswell.
“This year has been really special, for all of us,” said linebacker Harry Kim, part of a large senior class of 15 at Riverside Military.
Kim certainly has been a big part of maintaining that belief in the locker room as a four-year starter for the program. He pointed to coach Garrett for really flipping the script in Year 2 of his tenure.
“My first year, we were 1-9. My second year, 2-8 and last year we were 2-8. Now, we’re in the playoffs, first time in 10 years,” said Kim, whose 150 tackles currently leads the Class A for 2018 according to Garrett. “We’re making history and all of that. It’s great, you know?”
While notching a rare playoff upset over George Walton was memorable, Kim said his happiest moment this season occurred in the team’s top-10 win over No. 6 Commerce on Oct. 26, which clinched the school’s first playoff berth since 2009.
“It’s like a dream come true finally, after three years of working and it’s finally paid off, even if it’s your senior season,” Teasley said. “It’s great to finally get it.”
About 80 percent of last year’s roster was accounted for going into 2018 according to Garrett, extremely rare for a program at Riverside Military. Garrett believes it’s due to the team’s core putting Garrett’s philosophy to action.
“The core guys that have been here for a multitude of years all made the decision to come back,” Garrett said. “Those kids were contacting our other kids, and telling them that ‘This was going to be our year, make sure you come back, make sure you got your paperwork lined up.’ … As we moved along, our kids have truly defined our true character of what Eagle football is all about. It got us to this point. ... People ask us, ‘Are you surprised as a staff?’ And we say absolutely not. We’ve been talking about it from Day 1 — expect to win.”
And that philosophy goes deeper than wins and losses added Garrett. It applies to everything about a cadet’s academics, athletics and life. The evolution of his players have been so noticeable, Garrett has received e-mails from the majority of parents in this large senior class, sharing encouraging messages of how much their son has transformed, “not just in school but in football,” he said.
So far Garrett has watched six of his players receive collegiate offers. Senior all-around athlete Khalid Duke, who is second in tackles with 124 on the team, picked up his 11th college offer from Kansas State on Monday. It only adds to his stack of names that include Army, Navy and Air Force.
“It’s been great, and I’m excited,” Garrett said. “I was just looking at that board as we’re talking, and it’s quite a stretch. … And I still believe our best is yet to come — our best football.”
Now the Eagles look ahead to a Fellowship Christian program that has reached the second round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, including a state title appearance in 2016. The Paladins’ only loss this season was a Region 6-A championship loss to No. 8 Mount. Zion.
Fellowship Christian is a well-rounded unit on both sides of the ball according to Garrett. The Paladins operate in the Wing-T, putting up 39 points a game behind a potent rushing attack that averages 337 yards a game, third-best for the Class A. It is led by sophomore running back Murphy Reeves (1702 yards, 18 touchdowns).
“They do an exceptional job of driving the ball downfield and scoring,” Garrett said. “Their running back is a very elusive, strong runner.”
The Paladins have been playing without their starting quarterback Brooks Bryant, who was injured midway through the season.
To have a chance, Teasley (1,405 passing yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions) said matching this high-scoring offense drive for drive will be crucial for the Eagles, who average just 24 points a game but have scored 40-plus twice this season.
Teasley, who has experienced far more success on the track as a member of Riverside Military’s state championship team last spring, is still processing the fact he’s made it this far on the gridiron. He’d love to add another win Friday for teammates like Duke and Kim, who have been at the school for five years and have maintained a strong brotherhood in the locker room.
“I’d love to win the next game, not for me, but for people like (Khalid) Duke and (Harry) Kim who have been here for five years. It’ll just be great for them, to win and keep this legacy going.”