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Battle-tested Eagles prep for playoffs
Riverside overcomes slow start to earn 2nd straight GHSA postseason berth
Riverside Military Academy’s Tarvin Dukes wraps up running back Christopher Davis in the backfield during the Eagles’ Monday afternoon practice at Maginnis Field. The team is preparing for their second straight playoff berth.

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By: Ashley Bates

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GHSA state playoffs

Friday's first-round games

Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe at Gainesville
Ringgold at North Hall
Flowery Branch at Ridgeland
Heard County at Jefferson
Pepperell at Buford
Riverside at Callaway
Landmark Christian at Commerce

Tickets $8

It’s hard to simulate a playoff atmosphere unless you’ve been there before.

Or, in Riverside Military Academy’s case, you’ve been in a win-or-go-home scenario for the last four weeks.
Prior to the start of Riverside’s (5-5) Oct. 16 game against Fannin County, the Eagles were sitting at 2-4 and mired in a three-game losing streak.

After starting their region season with two wins (Banks County and Rabun County), Riverside played the three teams in three weeks that ended up being the top seeds out of Region 8-AA — North Oconee, East Jackson and the state’s No. 4-ranked Jefferson. The Eagles lost each game.

“We knew that we’d have to run through the big three,” first-year Riverside coach Scot Sloan said. “Once those three seperated themselves from the pack, we were in a group that was fighting for the fourth and final seed in the playoffs.”

In that group along with Riverside was Fannin County, Union County and Oglethorpe County, and the Eagles would face each in the last four weeks of the season.

“(Making the state playoff) was a result of steady improvement and incredible focus by our players,” Sloan said. “We knew going into the Fannin County game that we were going to have to win three of the next four to ensure our season continued past the regular season.

“So we approached the Fannin County game as a playoff game.”

In that game, the Eagles rebounded from an early deficit with two second-half touchdowns and defeated Fannin County 20-17.
Lucas Bersin, who started at quarterback as a junior for Riverside in 2008, came in to make his first start of the season at quarterback for Riverside and played the entire game after being used mostly as a linebacker and on special teams. He finished the game with four completions for 92 yards.

Bersin’s late-season performance was key to Riverside’s run to playoffs. In his four games as starter, the Eagles went 3-1 and he passed for 673 yards and six touchdowns.

“We’ve gotten used to playing like we’re already in the playoffs,” Bersin said. “We know how it feels to have to win or go home.
“This is my senior season and all I want to do is go out there and help the team however I can.”

With Fannin County out of the way and the Eagles’ playoff hopes still alive, they turned their focus to Oglethorpe County knowing a misstep would mean they had to win the final two games of the season.

The Eagles lost and put themselves in the very position they were trying to avoid.

“We let one get away with Oglethorpe, which was disappointing,” Sloan said. “We had to come back and refocus because at that point it was a two-game season.

“We were going to have to beat Union County at Union County and we knew that was going to be very tough.”
Bersin once again proved his value, however, going 8-for-15 passing for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns and rushing 27 times for 97 yards and a touchdown to lead the Eagles to a 28-27 win over the Panthers.

“The kids hung in there,” Sloan said. “To get that win on the road was huge for us and I give a lot of credit to the players and my assistant coaches.

“I’m blessed with a staff who works incredibly hard for our players and this school.”

The win put Riverside in a three-way tie for the fourth and final spot in the playoffs with a must-win game against one-win Dawson County set for the final week of the regular season.

As was expected, the Eagles prevailed 27-0, and in doing so earned a second-straight playoff berth.

“We’re excited and ready to play,” said senior fullback and linebacker Aaron Gambrah, who currently has 95 tackles and 14 against Dawson County alone. “We’re ready to make a name for ourselves in the state.

“We can beat a lot of teams, we just have to do what we’ve been doing since the Fannin County game: play fast and play football.”

Four weeks after staring at a 2-4 record and a do-or-die scenario for the rest of the season, Riverside suited up for practice Monday in preparation for Callaway, its first-round state playoff opponent.

“We’re going to have to play perfect and execute perfect to win,” Bersin said. “We know that.”

Callaway (8-2) is the No. 1 seed out of Region 5-AA and is riding an eight-game winning streak.

“They’re very talented, fast and physical,” Sloan said. “It’s not an accident that they’re the No. 1 seed.

“All the little things we’ve got to do well. We’ve got to give ourselves a chance to win by not beating ourselves. Hopefully, the mindset that we’ve gained from our backs being against the wall for the last half of the season will carry us to a first-round win.”
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