The 2020 football season was bound to look a bit different for everyone.
At River Ridge, it was unlike any season before.
The youngest program in Cherokee County put the state on notice. The Knights accomplished a number of program firsts, and at the head of the turnaround was second-year coach Mike Collins.
A victory over Woodstock in the second week of the season snapped River Ridge’s winless streak against Cherokee opponents, and it helped spark what would become the best season in program history. The Knights finished the regular season with a 9-0 record and took home their first region championship, claiming the 7AAAAAA title.
River Ridge recorded its first playoff win the in the first round, a 35-34 overtime win against Kennesaw Mountain, and followed that with a 42-10 defeat of Rome in Round 2.
The historic season came to end the following week with a defeat to eventual state runner-up Lee County, but the year will not soon be forgotten by those involved with the program.
For helping to lead River Ridge to its best season — and one of the best ever by a Cherokee County team — Collins is the 2020 Cherokee Tribune Football Coach of the Year.
“To see where we were program-wise when I got here and to see us take the steps we needed to get where we are now, it’s been a very pleasing experience for me as a coach,” Collins said. “Hopefully, we’re not done, but just to see how we’ve progressed, it feels good. Moving forward, we’ll really find out if we’ve established that new culture.”
A Cherokee County native and Cherokee High alum, Collins took over the River Ridge program in 2019 after previous head-coaching stops at Pebblebrook, Chamblee and Wheeler.
In less than two years, he set a new tone for a program that had not finished above .500 since 2011, and which averaged three wins per season since its inception. The Knights entered the 2020 season with a 0-20 all-time record against in-county opposition and had only advanced to the playoffs once.
The victory over Woodstock came on a fourth-down stop to end the game and was one of several games which the Knights won in the fourth quarter.
“Because of what it meant, I think getting that stop on fourth down against Woodstock was the biggest moment for us,” Collins said. “It was one of those things where we’d been in that situation a lot, had those opportunities, and it could have been a ‘here we go again’ situation. We got the stop, and I think that got the burden off the players’ backs, which trickled down to the other success we had.”
River Ridge scored the most points in program history (405) and recorded its first wins over Creekview, Etowah, Sequoyah and Woodstock. Only two seasons removed from a one-win campaign, the Knights rattled off 11 straight victories to begin the season, which was three more than the eight combined wins the senior class had experienced during the three years prior.
“Some of the toughest kids that I’ve ever been around,” Collins said. “It was really peer-driven this year. It was not a lot of what I did really. It was the peer leadership of our senior class. It was an absolute coach’s dream. It was all about the team, and you almost had to be here to see it. After all we went through the COVID and everything else this year, it was really a blessing to coach this group.”
This season also saw the first appearance in state rankings as River Ridge rose to No. 5 in Class AAAAAA by the beginning of the playoffs. The Knights will return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball next season and have undoubtedly altered the perception of their program for the better.
“When I took this job, I had so many coaches asking where this school was. I heard that so many times,” Collins said. “I’m not going to have those conversations anymore, and that’s because of what these kids did this year. I’m really going to emphasize that to our seniors when I get a chance to speak to them one last time. I want them to truly understand what they’ve done. In 10 or 15 years, when people talk about the guys on this team, people will know what team they’re talking about.”