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East Ridge football: Upset falls short; No. 4 Stillwater escapes with 24-21 win

The East Ridge defense held No. 4 Stillwater in check for the majority of the night, but the Ponies' special teams helped them beat the Raptors 24-21.1 / 2
Junior running back Nick Leach led the way for East Ridge in the game, rushing 31 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns.2 / 2

On Friday it was shoulda, coulda, woulda for the East Ridge football team.

Once again, East Ridge proved they could compete with the state's top teams, but once again, the Raptors were unable to pull off an upset.

East Ridge fell 24-21 to fourth-ranked Suburban East Conference foe Stillwater on Friday at East Ridge High School. It was the Raptors third loss to a team ranked in the top four this year. East Ridge lost 10-7 to Mounds View when it was ranked fourth and fell 34-24 to Cretin-Derham Hall when the Raiders were ranked third.

"No, we didn't win it, but it wasn't the kids' fault," East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said. "The kids played their butts off and did everything we asked them to do."

Despite falling behind 14-0 less than four minutes into the game, the Raptors were in a great position to beat the Ponies down the stretch, but came away empty handed.

After East Ridge (3-3; 3-3 SEC) made it a 24-21 game, Stillwater took the ball on its own 20-yard line with 3 minutes, 1 second remaining in the fourth quarter. The Raptors defense held conference-leading Stillwater (5-1; 5-1 SEC) to a three-and-out and forced the Ponies to punt the ball away. The punt got hung up in a stiff October wind, then took a Raptors' bounce and netted only four yards, giving East Ridge the ball on the Stillwater 29 yard-line with 2:36 remaining in the game. However, facing fourth-and-2 at the Stillwater 21 yard-line with 1:02 remaining, East Ridge running back Nick Leach was stuffed for a 1-yard loss and East Ridge turned the ball over on downs. It was Leach's first carry for a loss in the game.

"It was close. We were right there," East Ridge senior linebacker and team captain Chago Huerta said. "(Our effort) was perfect. We gave it everything we had. Everyone out there had each other's back and we gave it 110 percent every play."

Pendino blamed himself for the loss.

After the game, Pendino questioned his decision to go for it on fourth down instead of trying to tie the game with a 38-yard field goal. Also, earlier in the game, Pendino passed up a 37-yard field goal attempt and instead tried for a first down on fourth-and-10 at the Stillwater 20-yard line. Then, later in the game, Pendino was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing a call, which helped knock East Ridge out of field goal range.

"It's not on the kids. This one is on me," Pendino said. "I didn't do a good job at the end of the game. I didn't give the kids a chance."

However, two big plays on special teams by Stillwater's Nick Ricci and a critical penalty called on East Ridge late in the fourth quarter, were obviously key to the outcome.

Stillwater started the game by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown as Ricci sprinted 85 yards for the score. Then, after East Ridge's first drive stalled after six plays, Ricci returned the ensuing punt 75 yards for a touchdown to give Stillwater a 14-0 lead just 3:24 into the game.

"In my opinion this was our game," Huerta said. "Without that, we had the game. Our offense put up more points than their offense and our defense held their offense. We held them in check the whole game."

After Stillwater went up 14-0, East Ridge controlled the majority of the football game and outscored the Ponies 21-10 over the remaining 44 minutes.

"We gave them two big special teams plays for scores, but we absolutely played with them," Pendino said. "Going in, we thought they were the best team we've played so far this year. They're a pretty good team. I told our kids to let this one go. The effort the kids gave was awesome. I give them all the credit."

East Ridge scored for the first time following a fumble by Ricci, which was recovered by East Ridge's Jake Knupp at the Stillwater 26-yard-line. Facing third-and-goal from the 8-yard-line, Leach waltzed into the end zone for the Raptors and - after the extra point kick was blocked - East Ridge cut its deficit to 14-6.

Then, after East Ridge shut down the Stillwater offense, the Raptors were able to tie the game 14-14 with 11:45 left in the first half. Leach capped a six-play drive with his second touchdown of the game - a 12-yarder - then freshman quarterback Seth Green found junior tight end Alex Pape for the 2-point conversion.

However, after the two teams traded a pair of punts, Stillwater's offense put together its only touchdown-scoring drive of the game to take a 21-14 lead on a 3-yard pass from Ricci to Matt Anderson with 3:35 remaining in the first half.

But, after taking the kickoff at its own 20-yard line, East Ridge again marched into Stillwater territory. The Raptors had the ball at the Ponies' 26-yard line, when Green hit Xavier Cole with a pass down to the Stillwater 5-yard-line. However, the play was ruled incomplete - then Pendino was hit with a 15-yard penalty that put the Raptors at the Stillwater 41 yard-line with just 39 seconds on the clock. Green was then sacked to end the half.

In the second half, Stillwater extended its lead to 24-14 with a 9-play, 4:30 drive capped by a 30-yard field goal by Danny Laudet. However, just plays earlier, East Ridge thought it had an interception as Matt Wavra picked off Ricci's pass at the Raptors' 14-yard line. However, the play was overturned as the Raptors were flagged for pass interference.

"Coaches coach, officials officiate and players play," Pendino said. "You can't worry about what they call. Their calls are their calls. The kids got to go play and we have to coach them."

Following the Stillwater field goal, East Ridge put together an 11-play drive of 65 yards, capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by junior running back Austin Kamrath and an extra point by Alec Tostenrud that made it a 24-21 game with 3:01 left to play.

But, that's the way it would end.

Leach led the way for East Ridge in the game, rushing 31 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Green completed 10-of-22 passes for 130 yards and made some big plays with his feet, rushing nine times for 58 yards. In addition, Keith Durham caught four passes for 40 yards.

Defensively, East Ridge - which came into the game leading the SEC in rushing yards allowed - held Stillwater to just 28 yards on the ground in the loss.

East Ridge plays host to intra-district rival Park on Friday, Oct. 12, at East Ridge, before wrapping up the regular season at White Bear Lake on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

East Ridge's postseason will begin the following week when the Section 5AAAAA playoffs begin. The main competition standing in the Raptors' way of a state tournament is expected to be St. Thomas Academy, with Hastings and Tartan also in the mix.

Despite the .500 record, Huerta feels the youthful Raptors - which start only four seniors - are improving with every game and believes East Ridge will be a force in the playoffs.

"I feel like we're rolling to state - that's my opinion," he said. "We're rolling to state."