Already faced with a roster that just came together a little more than two weeks ago, new Riverside Military Academy coach Chris Cotter struggled to find the right words to summarize how he felt about starting the season a week before everyone else.
“We consider it an honor to start early,” Cotter said after a few seconds to collect his thoughts. “I always prefer to find out what we have with game film, so I guess it’s good that we’re getting to play this week.”
Cotter’s task in his first year at Riverside is a tough one. He’s starting a freshman quarterback, a freshman running back and 47 of the 56 players are new to the program. Despite all that, he’s not making any excuses as his team prepared to open the season Friday against Pinecrest Academy in Cumming.
“I’m not giving them a quarter, not one minute, due to inexperience,” Cotter said. “I expect them to be disciplined based on the nature of this school. There’s perfection everywhere and I expect that on the football field.”
Though practice time has been extensive since the cadets arrived for practice Aug. 1 — with two-a-day and sometimes three-a-day practices — the majority of the learning process, and where the players have become a team, has taken place off the field in the barracks.
“We’re around each other all the time,” senior Tarvin Dukes said. “We’ve bonded real well and if you have cohesiveness within the team, you can overcome inexperience.”
Dukes, who plays fullback, linebacker and offensive line, is just one of four returning starters on the Eagles, who finished 5-6 last year and lost in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs.
“The young guys are doing the best they can do,” Dukes said. “Some of them are timid at times, but we know they can pull their weight.”
They’ll have to if Riverside wants to return to the postseason for the third straight year.
Quarterback Michael Gallup and running back Justin Martin are two players Cotter knows can lead his team to wins, and he’s complimented both of their abilities to learn the playbook and adjust to the nature of high school football.
“We’re throwing a lot at them,” Cotter said. “They’re still learning, but they’re getting it.”
Pinecrest as a program is also still learning. The Paladins have only been in existence since 2004, all of which were played in the Georgia Independent Schools Association. The Eagles were also once members of GISA and won a state title in 2005. Pinecrest Academy went 11-2 and lost in the GISA semifinals last year.
“Pinecrest’s an excellent team,” Cotter said. “They’re large lines are really going to be a test for us.
“We’re just going to go out there and throw punches with them.”
Not only will inexperience play a role in Friday’s game, but injuries will too. The Eagles might be without the services of wide receiver Tyler Pluhar, who suffered a shoulder injury in practice.
“We’ve endured some serious injuries,” said Cotter, referring to Pluhar’s injury as well as a broken arm by an offensive lineman and a broken scapula suffered by a defensive back. “We have more serious injuries because we don’t have a summer program like most high schools. The hitting begins here as soon as we open practice.”
On Friday, the hitting will be handed out to this season’s first opponent and Cotter, while hopeful the outcome will be in his favor, is focused more on his team’s performance.
“I think winning breeds winning,” he said. “But then again, I’m not going to look at the scoreboard as much as the physical game.
“I can take stuff from a loss as long as it’s not because of a lack of execution,” he added. “If they’re just better than us, they’re better than us.”