Marc Paglia has been navigating the unique challenges faced by Riverside Military Academy for the better part of three decades.
While most high school athletic directors can expect the majority of their student athletes to remain enrolled in their school until graduation, Paglia and the Eagles can never be certain how long any player will stay. And that’s only if they can first persuade a boy to give up the freedoms that your average American teenager enjoys and sign on for the much more regimented life that a military school demands.
“Convincing the kid is more difficult than convincing the parents,” said Paglia, Riverside’s athletic director and swimming coach.
“To convince a high school boy to give up his cell phone and not see his girlfriend and ... have someone tell him what to wear and how to walk, that is our biggest obstacle, to try to convince the boy that’s what he needs at 13 or 17-years-old. Once we get them on campus and get them bought in for a month or so, I think they get to see the light and understand what we’re about and what we’re trying to do for them.”
Despite those persistent hurdles, Riverside’s athletics program made key strides during the 2013-14 school year with a bounce-back season in football, a Hall County swimming championship and an historic tennis season.
The Times sports editor Jared Putnam sat down with Paglia to talk about the Eagles’ recent past and what he sees for the school’s athletic programs in the near future, as part of a series of question-and-answer sessions with area athletic directors.
What stood out to you about Riverside’s athletics last year?
“Swimming, we did really well this past year. We won the Hall County championship. We had eight people qualify to go to the state championships.
“We had a young man, a 10th-grader last year, his name is Kevin Reale, qualify in two events in the finals. It’s been quite a while since we had that happen. You know, in swimming it’s the (Class) A all the way through AAAAA that compete (against each other in the state championships), so it makes it really difficult for a smaller school, a AA school like us, to compete.
“Tennis, (we were) region champions and made it to the top eight (in the state playoffs). The team we lost to, Westminster, ended up being (state champion). Their coach called our coach after they won and said the team they had beaten in the finals wasn’t as good as our team, which made us feel good.
“The track team did excellent this year. The crew (rowing) team, not many schools have a crew program. We’re pretty proud of that. We have between 25 and 30 kids participating consistently in crew.”
Football season was a good bounce-back year for you guys after a few down years (Riverside finished 5-5 after going 5-25 over the previous three seasons combined). How important was that to set a little bit of a tone for the entire athletics program?
“Not just a little bit of a tone. Especially at an all-boys school with all that testosterone flowing, you want to do well in football. That’s the king sport and everybody wants to come out of the chute doing well.
“This will be my 26th year, and we’ve had some pretty lean years in football. Coach Downs has been a Godsend for us. He’s come in and put a whole new energy behind the program. When he was 2-8 (in 2012), he was a little disappointed his first year. He was 5-5 last year, and we think there’s one or two that got away from us that we should have won. Looking forward to this next year, we’ve got some good pieces in.
“Coach Downs has really amped up our 7-on-7 programs. We went to one at Johnson High School and lost one out of the seven matches we played in, which is pretty darned good for us.”
Lacrosse is a sport that is really growing in certain pockets of the South, even neighboring counties, but it hasn’t really taken off here in Hall County (Gainesville High and Riverside are the only two high schools that play the sport). Do you have a sense of whether its growth here is going to continue to be sort of a slow burn, or do you think it’s going to take off at some point?
“That’s a good way to describe it. It’s still going to be a slow burn, but I think it’s going to grow. It’s even on ESPN once in a while, which, you know you’ve made it when you start getting on ESPN. It’s going to take some time. Gainesville is just ... kind of stuck in football being the sport and basketball and baseball, and everything else kind of takes a back seat to it. There’s always good and bad to that.
“We had huge participation (in lacrosse last year), which is part of what we consider progress. If you get large participation, you’re bound to get some good players.”
From an outside perspective, it seems like the toughest challenge for Riverside is never really knowing how long you’re going to have kids here while trying to build that continuity and team chemistry. Do you agree?
“It’s hard at a boarding school like ours, where we have such a transient flow of kids in and out, to build a cohesive, team atmosphere. We do well in the individual sports like wrestling and swimming and tennis, things like that. It is one of the biggest obstacles we have.
“To a certain point, though, we’re at a little bit of an advantage that the kids live together here. So, they’re kind of stuck into a little family atmosphere already. They may not have that year after year of growing up through the system, which is an advantage, but we get these guys living and eating and sleeping and going to class each day, and it seems to bond them together pretty quick. It’s just a struggle sometimes synchronizing together on the fields and on the basketball court. It’s a battle sometimes and we have to hold our breath to see who will be back in August. Sometimes the parents can’t afford it or something happens that they can’t get back.
“We had Evander Holyfield’s boy (Elijah Holyfield), and the kid was a hoss. I just got a call from the University of Oregon asking me about him. He’s heavily recruited by Clemson, Georgia, everybody. We were working so hard to get him back, but his mom wanted him home.
“Unfortunately, people think they’re going to give us their kid (if) he’s not studying, he’s a little bit lazy ... so they feel when we’ve got his grades up, he’s fixed, so he’s going to go home. Well, he ends up doing the same thing at home again that he did before."
What’s the biggest misconception about a military school like Riverside?
“A lot of times it’s (difficult) getting kids to want to come to a boarding, military school, because they have a misconception that we’re a reform school. We’re really not, we just have a traditional, military atmosphere here. We don’t create soldiers. A lot of people think that’s what we do, that we’re trying to get these guys to join the Marines or the Army when they leave here ... but we just use that military standard to help the kids focus or get back on track.”
You guys keep intact almost the exact same Region 8-AA you’ve played in the last two years, with the big exception that Jefferson High moved up a classification. How much do you think that opens the door for you to have more success?
“I think we’re not the only ones, but we’re definitely sharpening our claws now because we all think we have a chance. Rabun County is always going to be tough; Washington-Wilkes will be tough. I don’t want to leave anybody out ... but not having Jefferson there really gives everyone a more optimistic look that they may be able to make (the playoffs). We always enjoyed and always played well against Jefferson, but like everyone else we came out on the short end of the scoreboard.”
Is there any school that’s a particular rival for Riverside?
“I’d say most of our rivals are other private schools like Lovett or Pace Academy. ... We’re playing Johnson High School in football this year, and I think that will create some kind of a rivalry.
“In football we played the Military Bowl against Georgia Military College, a prep school, and there’s a floating trophy between the two of us, so that’s kind of a rivalry there.
“I think it would be nice to be part of the same type of feel you get in a North Hall-Gainesville game or a Gainesville-Flowery Branch game. Even being over here, we all know what’s going on and feel the hype from it.”
Has there been anybody in particular who has been an influence on you and your leadership style or coaching style?
“Richard Nichols, who had been the athletic director here for years and years, we call him Colonel Nichols, he has been my mentor from my early days and he still announces at our football games and basketball games. He’s just a fine gentleman and a role model for any of our coaches that have gone through the system. Coaching-wise, he’s probably the person I’ve looked up to (most).”
Are there any particular goals you want to see Riverside accomplish in the near future?
“Well, of course, winning is everybody’s goal, that’s how you gauge success, but I want to see our programs have strong participation and the kids have a positive experience with it. The kid of experience where they say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that again next year.’ So often kids get pushed so hard that they get tired of it.
“But if we get a kid to have a positive experience, he’s learned something and he’s grown through the athletic experience. We can see that feedback from him that he’s developed into a quality kid, well-rounded academically and athletically. That’s an accomplishment. We still want to win state championships.”