River Ridge will turn to Aaron Darling as its next boys basketball coach, following his approval at a school board meeting last week.
Darling spent the last six seasons turning Cambridge into a Class AAAAAA contender, but his move to River Ridge will be a bit of a homecoming after an all-conference career at Reinhardt and a stint as an assistant at Sequoyah.
“I took a leap of faith going to Cambridge,” Darling said. “The year before I got there, they had won three games. It’s kind of a similar situation. We eventually won back-to-back region championships and had a couple of 20-win seasons. I just thought I had the background and blueprint to come over and fix things.”
At River Ridge, Darling will take over a similar situation with a team that has won just 13 games over the last three seasons. He said turning a program into a winner starts in the offseason, and he planned to get started as soon as possible.
“It’s about the mentality,” Darling said. “You want to expect to win, and that’s what I want to bring to River Ridge. We haven’t been super successful the last few years. Putting ourselves in situations that will help kids learn to win through the summer and our scheduling of games is important. We just want to make everything competitive in every aspect of the program. That’s how you get better.”
Though River Ridge won just three games this past season, Darling said he did not see the Knights as a typical three-win team. All-region selection Will Apple is set to be back for his senior season, and when Darlington looks at the talent in the pipeline and the program, he thinks a turnaround is possible.
“They have the horses in the stable,” he said. “There are pieces there I’m excited about. Hopefully, bringing in a different perspective can push those kids a little harder. There’s not a lot of big guys around, and we have a few. That’s exciting. That can change a team’s game plan.”
At Cambridge, Darling ran an up-tempo offense that averaged 76.5 points per game. While the personnel will change at River Ridge, he intends to keep his game plan.
“I like to play up and down,” Darling said. “I think that gets buy-in from the kids, too. No one likes to play at a slow pace. That takes work on the front end, though. It’s not running and gunning where it’s hectic, but we want to push the tempo, make teams uncomfortable and use some of that athleticism and size that we have.”
While Darling said he has his blueprint to turn the program around, he admits it will take time. It took three seasons to achieve a winning record and playoff appearance at Cambridge, and while the success might not come right away at River Ridge, Darling said the process will begin to show this season.
“I would love to compete for championships, but, in Year 1, let’s compete with the county teams,” he said. “Let’s show we can be competitive with everyone in the county in both classifications. There were a lot of close games last year they could have won. We want to put ourselves in that position more and find a way to win those games. We want to make it so people don’t want to play River Ridge.”