NEW PORT RICHEY — As some Ridgewood High basketball players struggled to go full speed through a demanding post-practice conditioning drill, one assistant offered a refresher as to why they were being run so ragged.
Finishing strong takes on the most literal meaning for this group. And Monday they were reminded that if they want to reach a state — not merely a district — championship level, the work rate has to match up.
Wait … state championship? For Ridgewood, which has never gotten to a final four?
"I guess it's a dream. But we're trying to make it reality by working hard every single day," senior Will Dawson said. "You just gotta put everything on the line. Because this is it."
It sure is. With Ridgewood being turned into a magnet school next year, there will be no more sports.
Might as well go out with a bang. And while a state championship may sound unrealistic, it's not all that crazy.
"I believe we can actually win state this year," said senior guard Ty Quiroz, who is averaging more than 21 points as the Rams jumped out to an unbeaten start. "Because every day we come to work, and we have two key transfers, big-time players … big-time returners, big-time players on the bench. We look good this year. We're tough."
The numbers bear out all of that. Alec Sherman, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Mitchell who has played travel ball with many of the Rams for years now, is averaging a double double. Trey Reiser, from Nature Coast, is scoring a dozen per game while taking the early assists lead (around five per game).
Josh Vail and Aaron McCarthy, who both go 6-4 and can shoot from the outside, are scoring more than double figures.
"Actually, the goal was six kids in double figures, because I believe I have enough kids to do that. We have the pieces," sixth-year coach Derek Delgardo said.
Last season saw the Rams attain their most wins (18) under Delgardo, reaching the playoffs for his second time. Ridgewood has not won a postseason game since 2010, under legendary coach Gary Anders, who in his 23 seasons got the Rams to two region finals.
"We named the court after him," Delgardo said. "I think it would honor him, as well as the school, being that this is the last year. It would be nice to end a historic program in a historic way."
Delgardo is not holding back on the schedule, slating a trip to powerhouse Oldsmar Christian next week, loading up on as many in-season tournaments as possible (three) including a tough 12-team field for Ridgewood's own Ram Classic. Defending state champ Sickles is among the many strong Tampa Bay squads in the Dec. 27-29 tournament.
Last year the Rams finished in a three-way tie for first in District 6A-8 with Zephyrhills and Hudson, with Anclote coming in a close fourth. Ridgewood started off its season against that trio, winning by an average of 17 points.
"I wish I didn't have to play three district games the first week, but I'm glad they resulted the way they did," Delgardo said. "They were three great games. We're getting progressively better in our defensive effort, and that's where it counts. I mean, offense is not a problem for us. Defensively we have to get it done this year."
And so they work hard in practice, including the conditioning afterwards. Sherman thought he was prepared for it, but …
"The first day of tryouts, I threw up. It was tough," he said. "Just a whole different atmosphere. I had an idea of what it was going to be like. I knew that they worked harder than any other team, that I've seen, in the gym every single night, every single morning. I wanted to be a part of it."
So do the fans, who have been turning out with "crazy" support, said Dawson.
And as this season, one the Rams hope is truly special, progresses it's likely more alumni will add to the vibe.
"You gotta believe it for it to happen — and the fans definitely believe it. They're behind us this year and that's amazing," Delgardo said.
But, he added, the players must hold the belief and ultimately turn it into production.
Doesn't seem like that's going to be a problem.
"To have a chance to end my high school career, and then on top of that a school that's not going to be here next year, to go out and win a state championship … it just gives me goose bumps just thinking about it," Sherman said.
Dawson, the defensive leader as well as prospective sixth double-figure scorer for the Rams, said the "sweat equity" has taken on a whole new purpose.
"I guess your senior year is pretty final, right? It's kind of nerve-wracking when you're playing for something your senior year," he says. "But now, this (pointing to the court) is all gonna get knocked down eventually. So it just makes the mission a whole different story."