River Ridge girls play with 'controlled aggression'

No. 2, undefeated Knights aim for title with balanced attack

When looking at the team leaders for the River Ridge Knights, junior attack Kaitlyn Manderano’s 70 goals warrant a double-take. As of Thursday, she was just eight goals behind the national leader, Ryann Sigloch of Poly (Calif.), who has 78.

It’s not just Manderano, who is committed to Winthrop, however. The Knights, ranked No. 2 in 5A-6A with a 12-0 record out of Area 4, have seven double-digit scorers, including two freshman. Seniors Emery Polk and Kaitlyn Mulligan are the Knights Nos. 2 and 3 scorers with 21 and 20 goals, respectively.

Knights’ sixth-year coach Cecil Phillips describes the team’s philosophy.

“It’s controlled aggression,” he said. “We try not to force anything, and maintain patience from an attack standpoint. We work the ball around, and emphasize moving without the ball, and the girls are doing a good job of that this year. It’s helped create space for Manderano and the others. When they challenge Manderano, the defenders slide, and if they slide, it’s your job to get a goal. The player that is double-teamed, they understand that’s not a good scoring opportunity, so look to the middle and find the cutter. For the most part, we do that.”

Senior Bella McKinney, a multi-year starter, anchors the defense along with Manderano.

“Bella takes a lot of ownership in being a solid defender, and she doesn’t hesitate to take on the other team’s top scoring threat.” Phillips said.

The Knights have a unique situation at goalie, where they alternate a pair of seniors, Emma Porterfield and Valerye Susina, often subbing for each other mid-game.

“We’ve been doing it that way with them the past two or three years,” Phillips said. “We’re very blessed to have two goalies of that status. With one or the other, we don’t mss a beat depending on who is in the game. We’ve alternated them between the first and second halves, but there’s an understanding that if the starter is playing well, we’ll stick with them. They’re supportive of it, and unselfish is a great word to describe both of them. Anyone who competes wants to be on the field the entire time, and feel the position should be theirs, but they have a great relationship.”

The Knights have won eight of their games by seven goals or more, and their closest games were their opener against Decatur (11-7), Forsyth Central (9-7) in late February, and Marietta (11-7) and Chattahoochee (12-10) in March. They opened Area 4 play with a 14-4 win over Woodstock last week, and resume action Thursday at home against Etowah (4-7, 0-2).

Their regular season finale is at home against No. 7 Creekview (11-2, 3-0) on April 18. It will be the only ranked opponent they’ll play before the postseason, and the game is far enough down the road that it’s not on the their radar at the moment.

“We’re focused on one game at a time,” Phillips said. “We try not to focus on who we’re playing, because if we take care of ourselves, and do the things we’re capable of, and compete to the best of our abilities, we give ourselves a chance to win every game we compete in.”

The Knights are a program trending up sharply. Last year, they hosted the first playoff game in program history, and reached their first quarterfinals. That came a year after their first first playoff win. Phillips attributes the program’s climb to assistants Veronica Hewgly and Jenna Covington, and the booster club’s support in growing it.

“This year is the first year we’ve fielded teams at every grade level,” Phillips said. “In the past it’s just usually been one middle school team comprised of 6-8 graders. Our middle school coaches have done a great job with player development too, as the rising freshmen we get are coming over more and more skilled each year.”

With a win over Creekview, the Knights can accomplish another first: an area title. They’ve advanced deeper in the state tournament each of the past two seasons, and the aim is to once again top the previous year.

“We talk about raising the standard,” Phillips said. “Making the playoffs is the standard here now, not something to be excited about. Now, it’s time to start winning those games. Our goal is to get to (the quarterfinals again), get over that hump and keep climbing to the Final Four, and hopefully the championship game.”