There’s an aura surrounding the Ryan football program, an aura built by its head coach and by the players he’s coached over the last 12 years.
High on the wall above Joey Florence’s desk are the five medals from the five state championships he’s been to with Ryan, framed with the signatures of his players, and displayed in all their glory.
Last season, Ryan had rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs and the Raiders seemed primed for their second straight appearance in the Class 4A Division I state championship game.
Ryan had five Football Bowl Subdivision players on its roster, didn’t allow an offensive touchdown to Waco Midway and yet the Raiders still lost in the 2011 Class 4A Division I regional semifinals. The talent and stars brought media hype from all over the nation and a lack of cohesiveness in the locker room.
Coming into 2012 and one of the toughest seasons Florence will have faced, the shift in the program’s mindset may be as big a story as the move up from 4A to 5A.
The motto for this season is “others before self,” the gospel of Florence being indoctrinated into his players and repeated daily. The edict comes from a coach who doesn’t read blogs or recruiting sites but reads the newspaper and his Bible daily, all while he’s out to dispel the false prophets who hype unproven young men every fall.
“I’ll be honest with you, the reason I’m still [coaching] right now is I think there’s a need for old-school coaches who are still trying to show kids not to be selfish, that it’s not about them, that it’s about playing for each other,” Florence said. “I just think there’s a need for that. I think we’re living in an entitlement society, and what a great way to teach kids.”
Leading Ryan’s charge into this season is junior quarterback Mitchell Bridges, who stands 5-9, weighs around 185 pounds and might be the shortest quarterback in the district. Bridges played in some short-yardage situations last year and played through a torn labrum for much of the season.
Bridges, along with wideouts Xavier Gray and Reynal Caldwell, will lead Ryan’s offense through what Florence said is the toughest schedule Ryan’s played in the last 12 years. The Raiders will open against Corsicana and Wichita Falls Rider, games that will surely endanger Ryan’s 24-game regular season winning streak which dates back to 2009.
Ryan’s coaching staff has told Bridges it’s his turn to play the role of leader and build on last year. Bridges said last year’s locker room became divided, and that some players wanted the state championship, while others played for themselves.
“Everyone knows their role,” Bridges said. “This is not just about them, it’s about the team. If we’re going to make a run for it, everyone has to put everything into it and do what the coaches need them to, which is what everyone seems to be doing.”
Last season, Caldwell filled in at running back after Jerrick Harvey suffered a season-ending knee injury. This season, the coaching staff asked Caldwell to transition from running back to wide receiver, making way for A.J. Anderson. Caldwell accepted the change without hesitation.
The change comes easily and effortlessly for someone who has bought into what the coaches have been preaching, a message the congregation has heartily accepted. Caldwell said this year’s team is out to prove a point, out to top the 12-1 overall record and spotless district record set by last year’s team.
“Even though we lost all the [Division I] players, we’re still going to win, and we’re still going to be the Denton Ryan Raiders that everybody knows,” Caldwell said.
Florence knows jumping up to 5A and its increase in competition will be challenging. Still, Florence remains firm in what his team expects for the season.
“We still want to go win a state championship,” Florence said. “If you come together, play together and get lucky, it’s certainly possible. But we’re not going to kid ourselves. It’s going to be a tough road ahead. It’s a tough league.”
2011 record: 12-1 (6-0, District 4-4A)
Coach: Joey Florence (136-29 in 12 years at Ryan)
Returning starters: Five on offense, two on defense
Key players: WR Xavier Gray, QB Mitchell Bridges, WR Reynal Caldwell, DL Desmond Oliver, DL J.T. Williams, OL Matt Griffin, K Mark Orozco, DE Sekou Clark
School enrollment: 2,125
Stadium: C.H. Collins Athletic Complex
Keys to a historic season
Protect the ball
Turnovers cost Ryan dearly last year in their Class 4A Division I regional semifinal loss to Waco Midway. Losing a game while not allowing an offensive touchdown might be one of the most demoralizing ways to lose. Junior quarterback Mitchell Bridges will take over as the starter and can’t afford to throw interceptions. Bridges is more likely to tuck the ball and run before forcing a throw, a habit Ryan will value.
Overcome lack of depth
Ryan returns Desmond Oliver and J.T. Williams to its defensive line and adds Sekou Clark, meaning the Raiders will once again have a formidable defensive front. The offensive line will be built around Matt Griffin. But being a small 5A school, Ryan lacks the depth on the lines that other schools possess. The lines must remain strong in order to compete with the likes of Hebron and Coppell.
Win key games at home
Ryan head coach Joey Florence had a tough time scheduling games for nondistrict play, and was forced into scheduling some tough 4A teams in Corsicana and Wichita Falls Rider. The Raiders are also only playing nine games instead of 10. But six of those nine games will be at home, including three of five district games. Winning at home will set the Raiders up for a good seed heading into the playoffs.
Help the defense
Defense has historically been Ryan’s strong point, but the Raiders’ offense must be productive and give the defense some cushion. Bridges, Xavier Gray and Reynal Caldwell will be the focal point of the offense, along with running back A.J. Anderson. Junior kicker Mark Orozco has a college-caliber leg and will be huge on special teams. But if the offense doesn’t find a way to score points, it could be a long season.