SALEM – It’s tempting to call Riverheads’ win Saturday afternoon redemption.
After all, the Gladiators came up a two-point conversion shy of a state football championship last season. And immediately afterward the players and coaching staff turned their attention toward this season. They worked all offseason to get better, stronger, faster. Riverheads was the Steve Austin of high school football.
That was obvious to anyone who watched Riverheads the last two seasons.
“We weren’t getting bullied around like the state game last year,” Riverheads senior Harrison Schaefer said.
But Saturday’s 49-6 win over Sussex Central wasn’t redemption because nothing about this football program needs redeeming. This is a team that hasn’t had less than 10 wins in a season since 2008. Riverheads has now been to two straight state championship games and, in the last four years, has reached the state playoffs three times. Under Robert Casto, Riverheads has four state championships since 2000. The Gladiators are a model football program. Perhaps THE model football program.
What exactly about that needs redeeming?
The Riverheads fans celebrated after the win by chanting, “Red Pride, Red Pride” from the stands. There was one fan waving an American flag. Another was dressed as Santa Claus. But that was in the stands. On the field, there wasn’t a lot of celebrating outside of a few fist pumps, hugs and photos. Lots and lots of photos.
There’s no doubt that the players were thrilled with the win Saturday, but they are part of such a disciplined program under Casto that they’ve learned not to show it. Heck, Casto may have shown the most emotion following the win.
The coach walked down the sideline when the game was over and shook each of his players’ hands, telling them that it was “awesome.” Then he thanked them all. A reporter, after the game, said, “Hey, look, Casto is smiling.”
One of the team rules during the football season is that players aren’t allowed to talk to reporters. After the season is over, Casto doesn’t mind if his players are quoted. During the season, though, they are his.
But even though the Gladiators were allowed to talk after Saturday’s win, some were still reluctant. Junior Alex Diehl politely declined an interview request, simply saying, “I’m going to honor coach’s values.”
Dalton Jordan started to talk, then put his hand to his mouth and said, “I’ll need coach’s permission.”
Even Schaefer was leery to talk at first, but assistant Gene Wassick told him it was okay.
“What’s (Casto) going to do, bench you?” Wassick said, laughing. The game marked Schaefer’s final football game for the Gladiators. He went out in style, rushing for 205 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass to Ridge Stokes in the fourth quarter.
“It was different,” Schaefer said of the pass.
As for his rushing performance, Schaefer said what any Casto player would be expected to say. He talked about how it wouldn’t have been possible without his teammates, especially his offensive line which paved the way for 382 team rushing yards for the game.
“It all starts with the offensive line,” Casto said. “Those big uglies, they’ve really done it all year.”
The coach has said this season that the past didn’t matter. Losing last year may have prompted his players to get better in the offseason, but once the games started it was all about looking forward, not behind. After Saturday’s win, he admitted that maybe, at least on some level, this year’s state title had something to do with the past.
“Those kids thought about last year and I know that was part of it,” Casto said. “They certainly deserve what they got today. They’ve earned it.”
That’s not redemption. That’s simply wanting something badly enough that you’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Saturday afternoon, the Gladiators were rewarded for doing just that.