2012-13 Winter Preview: East Ridge boys basketball is Virgin's territoryPaul Virgin said the first date with his wife Mary was scouting a basketball game. It may not have been the most romantic setting, but it certainly was fitting.
By: Patrick Johnson, sports editor, Woodbury Bulletin
Paul Virgin said the first date with his wife Mary was scouting a basketball game. It may not have been the most romantic setting, but it certainly was fitting.
The Virgin family has a deep tradition in basketball around the state of Minnesota. Virgin’s dad coached at St. Paul Harding and his brother was a longtime coach at Eagan. Growing up, Virgin and his brothers played hoops at South St. Paul. His son Michael, an eighth-grader, plays in the East Ridge program, where his dad is the head coach.
“Basketball was always my first love and my true love,” said Virgin, who is entering his fourth year as the Raptors’ head coach. “I was kind of a basketball player trapped in a football player’s body. But, I always loved to play and played all the time. It kind of runs in our blood. We’re a basketball family.”
A longtime assistant basketball coach and softball coach between Park and Woodbury, Virgin finally got his shot to be a head coach when a third District 833 high school — East Ridge — opened its doors in 2009.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Virgin, an East Ridge math teacher.
“East Ridge has provided so many opportunities for so many kids, but also for so many teachers and coaches. It’s just a great spot to be. Was it a longtime coming? I don’t know. I just know it was the right fit. It really feels right.”
In addition to coaching softball in Cottage Grove for 20 years — 10 assisting legendary head coach Charlie Whitbred — Virgin was an assistant basketball coach at Park from 1988 to 1993 under Butch Moening, after being an assistant at Winona High School from 1986 to 1988. He was also an assistant coach at St. Francis, Princeton and Duluth East before that. The two years before East Ridge opened, Virgin was an assistant coach at Woodbury High School under Scott Swansson.
As ground broke on East Ridge, Virgin got involved. He was on the East Ridge planning committee and helped start up the East Ridge Athletic Association. Known as a vocal presence in the community, it came as no surprise Virgin would be engaged at his new school.
“I think I’m willing to stand up for what I believe in,” he said. “As my mom tells everybody, I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind. I just think you should speak honestly and speak about what you believe in. Sometimes, yeah, there’s going to be repercussions to that. But 99 percent of the time, when I go to sleep at night I sleep pretty well.”
Virgin said things at East Ridge “couldn’t be better.”
“The administration has been very supportive — they’re great — and our community has embraced what we’re trying to do here and the core values we’ve established with the basketball program,” he said. “I’m really happy with the East Ridge Athletic Association, what we’ve established and the way we’re working in the offseason. I think our kids are getting significantly better in the offseason because of the way we train. Our kids are buying into the system.”
Replacing Pahl a team effort
The past two seasons, as East Ridge totaled a 23-31 overall record, the team was led by sharpshooter Justin Pahl. Pahl, a 2012 graduate who is now playing for St. Olaf College, led East Ridge in scoring the past two seasons, netting 19.8 points per game last year and 15.3 the year before.
Virgin said replacing Pahl will be a team effort.
“It’s kind of like the movie “Moneyball,” you can’t replace Justin with just one guy,” Virgin said. “We’re going to try to do it with three or four guys and spread things out a little more. We don’t just have that one guy.”
The good news is East Ridge only lost two seniors, Pahl and forward Nnamdi Nwokolo, and the Raptors return eight players from last year — along with some new additions — to this year’s roster.
Compared to a lot of teams, what will stand out about East Ridge this year is their big men – literally.
The Raptors will field Conrad Sexe – a 6-foot-8-inch senior — and Ryan Keenan — 6-foot-9-inch junior – this season. Sexe, a team co-captain, will be playing his third year of varsity basketball for the Raptors. He was second on the team in scoring a year ago at 8.8 points per game.
“He’s had a great summer,” Virgin said. “He’s working hard on his strength. I’m looking for him to have a big year.”
Sexe knows his role has expanded and said he’s taking on more responsibility this year.
“Last year we had people to take a lot of the load,” Sexe said. “This year, though, I’m looking to be a force in the post whether that’s scoring, playing defense or grabbing rebounds, I just need to own it down there.”
For Keenan, it’ll be his first year of varsity basketball, but Virgin expects him to play a big role.
“He’s had a great summer and is just starting to blossom and mature,” Virgin said. “He’s doing a great job for us inside. I think people should be excited to watch him play.”
Sexe said he and Keenan need to be a presence in the paint.
“We’ll definitely be hard-nosed on defense,” he said. “We’re going to try to not let any shots up in the lane. On offense, we’ll definitely pound it inside, which will open up the outside game also.”
East Ridge’s backcourt will be anchored by sophomore point guard Sid Tomes, and junior co-captain Jake Knupp at shooting guard. The duo combined for 12.4 points per game last year.
“They provide a lot of experience and they both can shoot it,” Virgin said.
Tomes, in his second year as the starting point guard, said it’s his job to “run the show and do whatever the team needs to get the win.”
“On offense, we really want to get out and run in transition,” Tomes said. “That’s where the guards are going to excel. We can get out and run and attack the basket. On defense, we’re going to give everything. We hope that’s our trademark. When people think about us, they’ll think defense.”
Junior Brian Ishola, who was third in scoring a year ago at 8.6 points per game, and junior 6-foot-5-inch forward Ryan Mathis will man the wing.
“People have kind of forgotten about Ryan,” Virgin said. “But, he’s just had a great, great offseason. He’s looking great this year and provides a lot of things for us. He’s athletic, he can play outside and he can post-up inside and rebound. I really like our chances down low. I think those two are great compliments to Conrad and Ryan (Keenan).”
Virgin said he also expects big things from junior Xavier Cole, who is coming off a breakout football season, along with Parker Moquist and Brad Bolton. Freshman Seth Green, who was a standout quarterback for the Raptors’ football team, should also contribute when he’s cleared to play. Green broke a hand in East Ridge’s section championship game against St. Thomas Academy.
“We have good athletes. We’re as big as we’ve ever been and I think we’re pretty quick too,” Virgin said. “We want to push the ball up the court on offense and play hard man-to-man defense. We want to work really hard on the boards and outrebound teams and take care of the basketball. We think if we do those things we’ll be successful.”
Roseville the team to beat in SEC; Apple Valley tops in section
In the Suburban East Conference, Virgin said he believes two-time defending conference champion Roseville will be the team to beat. The Raiders, ranked seventh at the end of the year, beat East Ridge by a combined 52 points in their two head-to-head games.
“They’re really deep and have a lot of athletes,” he said. “They’re not as big as they were and they don’t have as many Division 1 players as they did before, but I still think they’re the team to beat.
Virgin expects Woodbury, Stillwater and his own team to be in the mix as well.
In Section 3AAA, Virgin said “it’s Apple Valley and the rest of us.”
The Eagles, led by junior point guard Tyus Jones — the No. 1 rated player in the nation in his class — might be the top team in the state. Also formidable will be Rosemount and Eastview, Virgin said.
East Ridge begins the season at home on Saturday, Dec. 1 against Andover. Other key games will be at home against Woodbury on Friday, Dec. 21, at Roseville on Jan. 15, at home against Stillwater on Jan. 22 and at Woodbury on Feb. 1.
Win or lose, Virgin will be there, continuing to do what he does best — coaching kids, teaching skills and passing on life lessons.
“He gets along with the players really well and knows how to get something out of them,” Tomes said. “He doesn’t just yell, yell, yell. He’ll get on you, but he makes you better. He’s a great coach.”