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East Ridge football: Raptors on to title game with dominating performance

East Ridge junior running back Nick Leach looks for running room Saturday against Tartan at East Ridge High School in the Section 5AAAAA semifinals. Leach ran for three touchdowns in a 36-22 victory. Photo by Nick Gerhardt1 / 3
East Ridge senior wide receiver Keith Durham hauls in a pass from quarterback Seth Green Saturday against Tartan at East Ridge High School. The Raptors rolled to a 36-22 victory to reach the section title game for the first time in school history. Photo by Nick Gerhardt2 / 3
Several East Ridge players converge to take down Tartan running back Eli McGeehan Saturday in the Section 5AAAAA semifinals at East Ridge High School. The Raptors held the Titans to 265 yards of total offense to reach the section title game. Photo by Nick Gerhardt3 / 3

The plan stays pretty simple for East Ridge when its offensive line performs well - give the ball to running back Nick Leach and good things happen.

That's exactly what happened for the second-seeded Raptors (5-4) Saturday in the Section 5AAAAA semifinals against sixth-seeded Tartan (3-7) at East Ridge High School in Woodbury. Leach, a junior, rushed for 164 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns to help the Raptors lock down their first trip to a section title game with a 36-22 victory.

"Nick's our go-to guy," East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said. "When we're blocking like that we're going to hand the ball to Nick and we're going to ride Nick as long as we can."

The only thing that did slow Leach down was a left ankle injury he suffered midway through the fourth quarter. The injury didn't look serious enough to keep him out of next week's game though.

Leach accounted for all but 68 rushing yards for the Raptors and the offensive line displayed some determination following a disappointing regular season finale performance against White Bear Lake.

"Last week we had a rough game, but that was a major motivation factor for us so we just picked up after that," junior center J.C. Hassenauer said. "We just got to it this week and really hit each other and got going. We open the holes and (Leach) makes us look great."

East Ridge will face top-seeded St. Thomas Academy for a trip to the state tournament Friday at St. Thomas Academy. The fourth-ranked Cadets (8-1) beat Simley 29-7 in the other semifinal Saturday at St. Thomas Academy.

Hassenauer feels confident about the Raptors' chances of moving forward following Saturday's victory.

"Our team is great and I feel like we can go all the way and be state champions if we really put our mind to it," Hassenauer said. "It's all about the mindset that we have."

East Ridge freshman quarterback Seth Green played with poise and effectiveness not often seen with freshmen. Green completed 6 of 8 passes for 138 yards and rushed for two touchdowns in a game where he managed the team like a veteran. Green hit receiver Keith Durham on a third-and-30 play for a 68-yard gain to eventually set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Green to give the Raptors a 15-8 lead in the second quarter.

Tartan rallied to tie the game on a 72-yard touchdown reception by Jahlil Payne from quarterback Tim McCarthy on the next possession but that did little to disrupt East Ridge's offense.

Green led the team on an 11-play, 80-yard drive to take a 22-15 lead after his 1-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds left in the half.

"Our team worked hard, all of us," Green said. "Our defense worked really hard this week and it showed out there. The coaches gave us the push we needed, we worked for it and the outcome of the game was what we wanted."

The Raptors punted just twice in the game and the first punt didn't come until the fourth quarter as the offense continually moved methodically down the field. Green led scoring drives on East Ridge's first five possessions, including drives of 11, eight, eight and seven plays.

The defense picked up in the second half for the Raptors to hold the Titans scoreless until the 1:22 mark of the fourth quarter with the second team unit in the game.

"Part of that was us being able to move the football and keep them off the field, but the defense played well in the second half," Pendino said.

East Ridge picked off three passes in the second half and prevented Tartan from reaching the red zone until the final two minutes of the game. Tucker Ledo, Sam Cobbs and Matt Wavra all had interceptions for the Raptors, who held the Titans to 265 yards of total offense, 72 of which came on one play.

Leach started the scoring with a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and added touchdown runs of 4 yards and 2 yards in the third quarter. Green scored from a yard out twice in the second quarter.

The Titans answered the first scoring drive with a 10-play, 68-yard drive when Eli McGeehan trotted in from 3 yards out in the first quarter.

"The motivation that this could be our last game made us feel like we had to play our hearts out no matter what was happening," Green said.