Changing it up at Rivers
For nearly three decades, the football program at the Rivers School was mired in mediocrity, some years averaging just two wins per season.
The Red Wings, however, have taken a dramatic turn under the direction of Rich Fisher, in his second season as head coach of the Independent School League squad in Weston.
“There’s a new attitude,’’ said fifth-year senior Taariq Allen, a highly recruited wide receiver and strong safety from Mattapan, who earlier this week committed to Nebraska.
“Everybody is serious. Rivers has always been a joke. People would schedule us for homecoming thinking it’d be an easy win. We were a mat that everyone stepped on. We’re not playing around anymore.’’
On Saturday, behind a record-setting performance from Allen’s cousin, senior tailback Ben Patrick, the Red Wings improved to 5-0 — the most wins at Rivers since 1975 — with a wild 69-40 win at Milton Academy.
Elusive and fast, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Patrick torched the Mustang defense for 325 yards and six touchdowns, both school records.
“No one embodies what this program is about more so than Patrick,’’ said Fisher, who played at the University of Colorado and has worked as an assistant on three Division 1 college coaching staffs.
“This is a kid that’s added 25 pounds of muscle in two years. He’s attacked the weight room. He’s diligent in the study of our system, understanding blocking assignments and defensive packages. With extra strength, extra speed, you can see the increase in confidence. And he’s taking off as a player.’’
The Mattapan resident is averaging 10.4 yards per carry and 232.0 yards per game through the first five games.
“He’s our spark plug, our rock,’’ said Fisher of Patrick, who has receiving interest from a number of colleges and has an offer from Holy Cross. “When he gets going, everyone feeds off his energy.
“We knew he was good, but I’d be lying if I told you that he’d have this kind of success,’’ Fisher said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that this kid would take off like he has.’’
Patrick attributes his success to equal parts conditioning and friendly family competition.
“Under coach Fish, there’s a focus on conditioning,’’ said Patrick. “It’s all about the summer, working out four or five times a week on strength and speed. Taariq [and I] feed off each other, on the field and in the weight room. A little healthy competition is good. It makes us better, stronger players.’’
Fisher implemented a conditioning program for the Red Wings (available to all students at the school) when he was hired before last season.
“We created a lifting program with the intent of getting our football players out and working in the offseason,’’ said Fisher. “That first year we had five players with perfect attendance. This year, we had 11. There’s a commitment to the program, and we’re seeing the effect. This is how good teams win. You prepare and you practice with a purpose.’’
But Fisher’s toughest challenge was to change the culture in the locker room.
“When I took over, I told the team, ‘Schools don’t lose just because. There’s a mentality that goes with winning,’ ’’ said Fisher. “Learning how to win is something we started talking about two years ago. Everything we’ve done over the last two years — the early-morning workouts, the attention to detail — it’s all about creating that winning attitude, a winning mentality. This group has been hearing it for two years. They’re believing it.’’
Fisher knows about winning. As an inside linebacker at the University of Colorado, Fisher played on the Buffaloes’ national championship squad in 1991. He was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State for two seasons before returning to his alma mater to work under Rick Neuheisel for three seasons. From there, he followed line coach Tom Cable (now coach of the Oakland Raiders) to work on his new staff at Idaho.
Also a teaching professional golfer, Fisher owns a golf academy in Southborough.
“Coach Fish, he knows what he’s talking about,’’ said Allen. “He’s been there, as a player and as a coach. He’s been in my shoes. He knows the ropes. He’s taught me so much: how to run routes, how to read a safety. We run a college offense and defense. We’re doing things in high school that I never thought I’d be doing.’’
In the Red Wings’ West Coast attack, the 6-2, 180-pound Allen has developed into a force. In five games, he has racked up 718 total yards of offense.
On Saturday, Allen totaled 132 yards receiving and returned a kickoff for a touchdown despite departing early in the third quarter with a minor knee injury.
“Taariq is a tremendous talent,’’ said Fisher. “He can play on the offensive or defensive side of the ball for a Division 1 program, he’s that kind of player; not just an athlete, he was a raw talent two years ago, but he’s honed his game. He’s a player.’’
Thomas Rehnert, a 6-4, 190-pound receiver from Weston, lines up opposite Allen. Senior linebacker/tight end Tanner Powers of Dover is a two-way force who will play lacrosse at Vermont next year. And 6-3, 270-pound senior A.J. Walsh of Quincy dominates in the trenches.
The Rivers offense is loaded with playmakers who can score in a hurry, and a coach who knows how to use them.
In the waning seconds of Saturday’s first half, the Red Hawks covered 56 yards in the blink of an eye. Quarterback Shaq Sandiford fired a 25-yard strike to Allen on a curl. As the defensive backs collapsed, Allen pitched to Patrick who raced to the end zone as time expired.
The successful hook-and-ladder play electrified the Rivers sideline.
“It’s something we practiced,’’ said Fisher. “It goes back to preparation. When we get to the game, we want to feel like we’ve been there before. It worked out.’’
The Red Wings shoot for their sixth straight win on Saturday, hosting St. Mark’s, followed by games against St. George’s and Roxbury Latin.
The top four teams will play in the championship bracket and the tiebreaker to determine seeding will be first-half points allowed to common opponents (Medfield, Hopkinton, Dover-Sherborn, and Ashland).
The current rankings line up this way: Holliston (7), Medway (8), Norton (12), and Westwood (13). Only Holliston’s number can change.
Since their Oct. 1 loss to Medway, the Panthers have outscored foes, 134 to 14.
Jeff Schaible can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.