There was a time when the absence of 13 players due to a variety of illnesses would have been enough to force the Riverdale Baptist football team to cancel practice.

Not too long ago, the Prince George's County school barely had enough players to field a team, much less practice when 13 of them were out. A few years ago, the school even considered dropping football because of a lack of interest.

But that was before Coach Ted Knapp took over the program two years ago. Knapp has brought in enough transfer students to mesh with his home-grown talent to turn the program around.

After a 6-6 record last year, the Crusaders are 7-1 this season. Before Knapp, Riverdale Baptist had just one winning season in its 15 years.

So when 13 players missed practice recently, Knapp hardly skipped a beat, seizing the opportunity to drill his younger athletes on pass blocking. He kept them there until dusk, when things finally came around for the makeshift offense.

Knapp is also the junior and senior high school principal of the school, which students in grades 1 through 12. He believes athletics are part of a Christian education and improving the football team was one of his primary goals.

And now that the Crusaders are better, he wants to play better teams.

The Crusaders dropped out of the Tri-State Athletic Conference to play area public schools and a few out-of-state teams. Eventually, Knapp would like to have a schedule similar to neighboring DeMatha, which plays in the Metro Conference and has non-league games with District and Pennsylvania schools.

Knapp does face one problem: Riverdale Baptist's enrollment is one-ninth of DeMatha's, so he has less students to draw from. Still, a challenging schedule is important to him.

"What you have is a Christian school, and within the ranks of {that} education are soft {students} not familiar with the work ethic, not familiar with the word 'commitment,' " said Knapp. "I try to attract quality athletes and quality men, so the kids at Riverdale Baptist have a role model."

That includes Scott Torregrossa, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound quarterback/safety who has completed 51 percent of his passes for 450 yards and five touchdowns. Ironically, Torregrossa, who also plays for the school's successful baseball team, originally went to DeMatha.

"He {Knapp} came in and saw me and said he could use me," said Torregrossa, who has eight interceptions, two that he returned for touchdowns. "He's probably the best coach in the area."

If not the best, then certainly among the toughest. His workouts usually last from 3 p.m. to sundown, as Knapp runs and drills his players on fundamentals. He even had them practice right after winning a lackluster game this year.

That is what attracted linebacker/offensive guard Jason Burns, a standout linebacker at High Point last year. He was expelled following a highly publicized fight last year between students from High Point and Sherwood high schools. He now calls the experience a "blessing in disguise," because playing for Riverdale Baptist has given him the discipline he lacked.

"At High Point, we had no execution, no discipline, just raw talent," said Burns, who has been credited with 14 sacks this year. "{Here} I've never been in {such} great condition. I wasn't going both ways. Now I'm two-way with time at fullback. What {Knapp} had to offer was more. He offered me another year of football."

The team's top lineman is Dale London, a 6-5, 315-pound senior tackle who has been with the Crusaders since his sophomore season. London has especially benefitted from Knapp's stern approach. "When he gets on 'em, he does it to help us. He wants to build character," London said. "Coach Knapp made us work."

Knapp does not let up on his student-athletes on or off the field. Running back Craig Lewis, who has 1,234 yards and 17 touchdowns, attended both Riverdale Baptist and Bowie last year and chose to return to Riverdale this fall.

"I felt I had the chance to do more academically and athletically," he said. "Although I felt gifted as a running back, {Knapp} gave me self-motivation and helped push me more. He keeps telling you, 'You can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it.' "

Knapp still has a few things to work on. The school's 162-acre complex has everything except a football stadium, which Knapp plans to have, with lights, built by next season. The Crusaders currently play their home games at Sports Park in Mitchellville.

Knapp responds to critics who think he is placing too much emphasis on football by saying athletics are a part of the Christian learning experience. But he wants to shed his school's perceived image of being a place for "Bible-thumpers."

Said London, "I talked to people this summer, and they said,'We'd do well too if we had what you had.' It's not really what we have, it's what we do. They {the coaches} put out for us, so we put out for them."