2012 Fall Preview: East Ridge football team's Friday night freightIn 2012, with a new starting quarterback and running back, much of the weight of the East Ridge offense will lie on the broad shoulders of its offensive lineman — in particular the team’s three bulky returning starters, juniors Keith Gordon, J.C. Hassenauer and Matt Kelly.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
Somebody once asked, “Where’s the beef?”
Well, there’s definitely a good portion at East Ridge.
In 2012, with a new starting quarterback and running back, much of the weight of the Raptors’ offense will lie on the broad shoulders of its offensive lineman — in particular the team’s three bulky returning starters, juniors Keith Gordon, J.C. Hassenauer and Matt Kelly.
The three “boys” add up to 18 feet and 810 pounds of mass — which you’d figure could intimidate opposing defenses and should help East Ridge move the chains this fall.
“They were all put to the fire last year as sophomores,” East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said. “With a new starting quarterback this year and a group of young, inexperienced quarterbacks, we’re going to rely on those three guys up front early in the season to keep us in football games.”
Kelly is the team’s starting left tackle and Gordon returns as the starting right tackle, while Hassenauer is back as the starting center.
“Those three kids are all players,” Pendino said. “It’s nice to know we have them this year and it’s nice to know we have them for another year.”
Kelly and Hassenauer are the captains on offense for East Ridge along with senior linebacker Chago Huerta and senior defensive end Cole Reuvers on defense.
“The team will be looking to us for leadership,” said the 6’0”, 260-pound Kelly. “We’re expecting every mistake to be blamed on us, because we’re important. Our offense starts with the O-line.”
Last year East Ridge was 2-6 in the Suburban East Conference and went 3-7 overall. East Ridge struggled to move the ball on offense in 2011. The Raptors gained 2,168 yards and scored 114 points in eight regular-season games, the second lowest totals in the conference in both categories.
“We have to do better than we did last year,” Kelly said. “I felt like we kind of let the seniors down last year. We do have to grow this year. This year is our main focus, but we need to prepare for next year too. I want to be the top line in the state by next year, if not this year.”
As far as the East Ridge offensive line goes, Hassenauer is not only the center, he’s also become the center of attention. At 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds, he ranks among the top 10 players in the state for the 2014 class by the national recruiting websites rivals.com and scout.com. It’s reported that Hassenauer is on the radar of a number of Div. 1 schools, including Nebraska, Michigan State, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Pendino said Hassenauer could already be the best center in the state.
Pendino helps coach the offensive line along with assistant coach Jim Basten, who was a starting offensive lineman for the University of Wisconsin.
Hassenauer gave his coaches credit for his development thus far and said it’s the offensive line’s job to set the tempo for the rest of the team in each game.
“From the first play, we need to hit them in the mouth and not help them back up,” he said. “Whatever it takes, obviously keeping it legal, you have to overtake the defense, you have to beat them off the line, you have to beat them off the ball and beat them with every step.”
Kelly, the younger brother of 2012 graduate Marcus Kelly, who was a three-year starting guard and a team captain for East Ridge, has pretty much always been bigger and stronger than kids his age. So too has the 5-foot-10, 280-pound Gordon. Hassenauer, however, has a growth spurt to thank for the increase in his individual upside.
“I just met these guys in eighth grade, but by ninth grade we formed bonds,” Gordon said. “As linemen, we form bonds really fast. For me, football has gotten a lot more serious. It’s about the joy of winning and taking pride in that. My main goal is to help the kids on the team get better, because I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Two years ago, the three linemen helped the East Ridge freshmen team finish undefeated before making the leap to starting varsity as sophomores last season.
“All three have improved in their own right,” Pendino said. “Keith is a very physical kid. He’s improved the most mentally. Matt and J.C. are very, very smart and they have improved physically and in technique. The three of them should have a good year.”
Aside from the three big men up front, East Ridge’s offense is full of question marks but has a bevy of young talent. The Raptors have a battle going for the last two spots on the offensive line — right and left guard — and have yet to settle on a starting quarterback. Three-year starting QB Brandon Johnson — the only starting quarterback in the school’s history — graduated last spring. Sophomore Sam Cobbs and juniors Stephen Orehosky and Alex Johnson are on the current roster at quarterback, but none of them has completed a pass in a varsity game. East Ridge may look to newcomer Seth Green, a transfer from Hill-Murray, to take the reins, but he’s only a freshman. At running back, junior Nick Leach carried the ball some in 2011, but will carry the load in 2012. Other key players are expected to be senior wide receiver Matt Wavra, senior fullback Bayo Idowu, junior tight end George Behr, junior linebackers Matt Davis and Matt Corcoran and junior defensive tackle John Hunter.
“Our team is going to be a little younger this year, because we don’t have that great of numbers in our senior class,” Hassenauer said. “But I definitely know the sophomores are stepping up and we have juniors that are returners. Everyone is stepping up. Hopefully by next year we’re unstoppable.”
East Ridge kicks off the season on Thursday, Aug. 30, against perennial powerhouse Cretin-Derham Hall at East Ridge High School. Last year, after winning on the road at Hastings 33-14 in the Section 4AAAAA quarterfinals, East Ridge lost to Cretin-Derham Hall 44-13 in the section semifinals. This year, in the postseason, East Ridge gets the luxury of playing in Class 5A, not the new Class 6A, which will be led by high-enrollment titans Wayzata and Eden Prairie. For the next two falls, East Ridge will only have to contend with Hastings, Simley, Henry Sibley, Tartan and St. Thomas Academy in the postseason.
However, no matter who they’re playing, Hassenauer said success or failure is going to come down to the attitude of the players on the East Ridge roster.
“You have to trust, commit and believe,” he said. “You have to trust in your teammates, commit to football every day and believe that we’re the best team in the conference and the section.”