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ROAD TO KICKOFF: Riverdale looks to close the gap this season

Photo by Derrick Mahone
Riverdale second-year coach Olten Downs (left) and defensive end Tykeem Bethea says the team must learn to win the close games in order to reach the playoffs.

Photo by Derrick Mahone Riverdale second-year coach Olten Downs (left) and defensive end Tykeem Bethea says the team must learn to win the close games in order to reach the playoffs.

Riverdale at a glance

Last Year: 4-6

Summer Progress: After several near-misses on the field against high quality opponents last seaosn, coach Olten Downs said his Raiders definitely believe they can compete with anyone. The task during this offseason, however, was instilling the attitude that makes Riverdale believe it can win against anyone.

Work To Do: Downs said he and his staff are focusing on reducing turnovers, fine-tuning schemes and perfecting the timing of what he said was a “multiple offense with lots of window dressing.”

Emerging Player: In addition to senior linebacker Troy Wyche, Downs said Tykeem Bethea should have an impact. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound defensive end/tight end can “run like a gazelle and is strong as an ox.” He believes Bethea can be an all-state player and dominate on both the defensive and offensive lines.

Last year, the Riverdale Raiders lost six games by an average of just over nine points. Included in those were heartbreakers to arguably the top two teams in the Southern Crescent.

A 31-30 loss to Jonesboro and a 13-6 defeat to state runner-up Lovejoy in the Raiders’ last game of the regular season may have left a bad taste in Riverdale’s mouth initially.

But now, in his second year as head coach, Olten Downs considers such games to be part of the recipe for success this season.

ROAD TO KICKOFF

The Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald are counting down the days until our high school football special section comes out on August 24 by taking a look at all 22 area high school football teams.

“Last season a lot of our guys just weren’t ready to finish at the end of games,” Downs said. “We weren’t mentally or physically prepared. They had never been in that competitive place to battle at the end of a game, but now you can see they are starting to believe they can win and dominate. We’ve been saying all summer, ‘finish the drill.’”

And that’s not just another catchy team phrase or slogan, says junior defensive end/tight end Tykeem Bethea.

“It means that we prepare to focus mentally, push through, not give up and fight,” Bethea said. “Finish the drill means keep your head in the game at all times and be consistent.”

One of the constants for the Raiders from last season was a bend-but-don’t-break defense that surrendered just a shade under 19 points per game. And with 10 returning starters to a multiple front defense that the former Carver-Columbus defensive coordinator dubs “different alignment, same assignment,” Riverdale should become even stingier.

“We want to play lights out ‘D’ and just dominate that side of the ball,” Downs said.

Offensively, seven starters return, including a multi-talented athlete in starting quarterback Steve Harris. Harris is so gifted that Downs said he will be looking for other ways to put him in a position to become known as an all around playmaker — which, in turn, opens up a three-man race between Harris, junior Greg Taylor, Jr. and sophomore Asania Aderhold at quarterback.

Downs said Harris is beginning to get some recruiting interest from schools like Alabama A&M and Tennessee-Chattanooga. And these schools want to see a total display of his football ability.

“They want to see him in other positions,” Downs said. “So we want to try him at wide receiver or even defensive back. We want to provide him a chance to get looks at those positions.”

In addition to the intrigue under center, the Raiders will be looking for another offensive impact player to fill the void left by Sateri Powell who was the leader of a talented receiving corps last season.

But Downs said he expects to find perhaps his team’s biggest punch from its smallest player.

Standing at 5-foot-7, and weighing 150 pounds, tailback Tikeem Cooper could be poised for a breakout senior season. Cooper rushed for 875 years as junior, and could become the pulse of the Raiders’ offensive attack.

“He’s got great vision and he’s such an elusive runner,” Downs said. “Quick as a cat. Shifty. He just gives everything and shows that some of the smallest guys have the biggest hearts.”

Some big names exist on this season’s schedule as Riverdale moves to Region 4B-AAAA.

Lovejoy is gone, but starting the season against North Clayton and then heading out for three straight road tilts at Drew, Grady and Dutchtown with Griffin sandwiched in the middle and Jonesboro rounding things out should give the Raiders plenty of opportunities to show how they’ve improved.

Downs believes that the opponent won’t matter if Riverdale stays true to who it is.

“We just need to hang our hat on what we’re good at,” he said. “Running the football on offense and stopping people on defense is what we’re built to do.”