Riverside Military stays optimistic despite football shutdown

Nick Garrett was a high school football coach in southern California three years ago when one of his childhood friends, Jason Pleasant, called him to Georgia.

“We grew up together,” Garrett said of Pleasant, the P.E. chair at Riverside Military in Gainesville. “He’s the reason I put in for this job. He said we could make history if you bring your talents here.”

And they did. Garrett moved across country to become Riverside Military’s football coach in 2017 and made Pleasant his defense coordinator. In their second season, Riverside won its first GHSA playoff game in history.

This week, when other GHSA football teams began conditioning for the 2020 season, Garrett was left to deal with stunning news — Riverside won't field a football team this fall because of COVID-19.

With the school’s announcement in May, Riverside became the first, and only so far, GHSA school not planning to have fall sports teams.

“My initial reaction was shock at the thought of not having a season, especially with the group of seniors we had and what we’d accomplished over the last couple of seasons,” Garrett said. “Now, I’m just spending time with parents and players and coaches, making sure they’re OK and squared away and completing a plan for each one of them.”

Riverside is a school of about 500 students in grades 7-12. It occupies the same campus on which it was founded in 1907. Riverside cadets hail from some 25 states and 30 countries. About 90 percent of them are boarding, so the safety challenges of that environment are greater than typical GHSA-member schools.

A few seniors have chosen to move on. One is Shad Dabney, a three-star football recruit with 27 scholarship offers. Dabney scored 30 touchdowns last fall and was an all-state player in football and basketball. Dabney announced last weekend that he would play his senior season at Cherokee Bluff, a public school in Hall County, where he grew up.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking that they canceled the season,” Dabney said. “It’s going to be tough not being able to play with my teammates and coach Garrett and coach Pleasant. I had built great relationships, and we felt we’d have a good year.”

Dabney said he still talks regularly with Garrett and Pleasant, especially for advice on recruiting. His offers include Power 5 and FBS programs, service academies and even Ivy League schools. He has a 4.0 GPA and said he loved his time at Riverside.

“It’s a good school,” he said. “It helps build character, time management, things like that. Then you have the sports aspect of it. There are great coaches all the way around. It’s a good place.”

Garrett believes it’s a good place, too. Otherwise, he might’ve moved on himself. Garrett has been a high school head coach in California and a college assistant at four schools. He beat out 70 local applicants for the Riverside job.

“There’s quite a few schools that have reached out and asked if I’d be interested,” Garrett said. “But I want to do what’s best for the school. I’m a firm believer in loyalty, and I want to make things right for those kids remaining, especially in these times of COVID and social unrest. We’re going to create a plan to train our kids and be empathetic to their needs.”

Riverside doesn’t have summer workouts even in normal times, so the offseason conditioning that began Monday for many GHSA schools is not a concern.

Garrett still plans to have football practice this fall in hopes of being back to normal in the spring 2021. Riverside’s basketball team, a state-playoff qualifier the past two seasons, could resume in October. The track-and-field program, which won a state title in 2018, is expected to be strong again.

“I’ve always been an optimistic-type person,” Garrett said. “This is a very close-knit community here — the military part of it, the academics, the athletics, the parents all work together very closely. Sports are very critical to the mental wellness of any young man. I’m going to make it happen here. What I’ve been telling people here is our best is yet to come.”