East Ridge football: No Leach, no state for Raptors
It seems like it may have been over before it started.
With standout running back Nick Leach sidelined with an ankle injury, the East Ridge football team struggled mightily in a 41-14 loss to St. Thomas Academy in the Section 5AAAAA Championship on Friday night in Mendota Heights.
"We're absolutely a better team with Leach out there, that's for sure," East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said. "He's a big, physical back for us. We put a couple sophomores out there that don't have the experience he has and haven't had the reps he's had. But, hats off to St. Thomas, they were the better team tonight. Hopefully we get a chance to play them again next year."
With Leach - who ran for 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns on 219 carries this season - limited to only two carries in the section final, East Ridge sputtered, while St. Thomas Academy rolled.
Top-seeded St. Thomas (9-1) opened up a 22-0 lead on second-seeded East Ridge just minutes into the second quarter - and the Cadets, ranked fourth in Class AAAAA, never looked back.
Without its bell cow to lead the way, the East Ridge offense looked lost for most of the night. The Raptors shot themselves in the foot with three fumbles and eight penalties.
"I tried coming back," Leach said. "The guy tackled me wrong on the first play coming back. I couldn't do anything about it. I just couldn't go. It was definitely a successful season, but we still have more to prove. Come back next year and you'll see us in the state championship."
Even without Leach, East Ridge (5-5) threatened to make a game of it in the second half. With two big passing plays, the Raptors cut their deficit to 22-14, but that's as close as the score would get. St. Thomas scored on three of its four possessions in the second half, outscoring the Raptors 19-0 after the break on the way to the 27-point win.
"The score is what it is," Pendino said. "We didn't play our best football tonight. They're a very good football team. It's disappointing, it really is, anytime you get beat in a championship game."
With Leach on the bench to start the game, St. Thomas held East Ridge to a 3-and-out on the its first possession as the Raptors totaled minus-3 yards on three plays. Then, on its first possession, St. Thomas senior running back Pat McFadden made it a 7-0 game, after the extra point, with 8:58 remaining in the first quarter.
On East Ridge's next drive, the Raptors fumbled on the first play. St. Thomas recovered the ball on the Raptors' 29 yard-line, and marched into East Ridge's end zone again just over a minute later. This time it was on a 6-yard pass play from senior quarterback Keegan Zimprich to Jalen Patterson, making it 14-0 with 7:06 left in the first quarter.
As things looked dire, Leach tried to give it a go. On his first carry, he gained eight yards, but then didn't gain a yard on his second carry. That was his final play of the game.
On St. Thomas' next drive, the Cadets used a fake punt to stay alive as senior Danny McManus ran for 22 yards on fourth-and-2. Then, just a few plays later, McManus found paydirt on a 15-yard touchdown run. St. Thomas then converted a 2-point play and led 22-0 with 10 minutes left in the first half.
Down 22 points, East Ridge came alive and began to build a little momentum. After holding St. Thomas to a turnover on downs, the Raptors scored their first points of the night. East Ridge freshman quarterback Seth Green connected with junior receiver Xavier Cole on a 55-yard touchdown pass down the Raptors' sideline and, after Alec Tostenrud's extra point, it was a 22-7 game with 6:51 left in the first half.
Then, on the Raptors' next possession, Green found Cole streaking again - this time on a 61-yard pass for a touchdown to make the score 22-14 with 1:54 remaining in the half.
"We made it 22-14 and had some momentum," Pendino said. "But, if we can't establish the running game, it's tough to throw it down after down with what we do."
The second half belonged to St. Thomas Academy. The Cadets opened the second half with an eight-play drive for a touchdown. St. Thomas then followed up the score with a safety and a field goal, before capping the game with a 20-yard touchdown run by McManus to make it 41-14 with 6:20 left on the clock.
"It hurts, I wanted to keep going," East Ridge senior linebacker Chago Huerta said. "We fought the whole game though. They were a very good team. We fought hard and they fought hard. They just had more big plays and came out on top."
East Ridge and St. Thomas have very different histories.
For East Ridge, which opened in 2009, it was the school's first section championship game. For St. Thomas Academy, this will be its 21st trip to the state tournament.
This season, despite starting only four seniors, East Ridge went .500 in the rough-and-tumble Suburban East Conference, playing mainly against Class 6A teams, and earned a trip to its first section final with a 36-22 semifinal win over Tartan.
For East Ridge, Green completed 9-of-21 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the section final, but was 1-for-4 for 2 yards in the second half. Cole had two catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, freshman defensive back Kjetil Cline reeled in an interception on a terrific play while falling out of bounds.
"It was a great year," Huerta said. "I'm very proud. There was a ton of great leadership. They're going to have a great year next year. They're going to be going to state next year, I guarantee that."