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2013 Fall Sports Preview: East Ridge football team bringing a Leach

East Ridge senior running back Nick Leach returns to the field this fall to help lead the Raptors football team and defend his Suburban East Conference rushing title. (Bulletin photos by Patrick Johnson)1 / 3
Nick Leach, right, has a laugh with running backs coach Randy Springer at a recent practice. Springer said Leach is the “total package.”2 / 3
Nick Leach runs away from the pack at a recent practice. East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said Leach could run for 1,500 yards this season.3 / 3

East Ridge head football coach Mike Pendino says he likes to call running plays “going fishing.” Because when he does, he’s bringing a leach — Nick Leach that is.

This fall, Leach — a senior running back who led the Suburban East Conference in rushing last year — returns to the Raptors’ backfield along with a highly touted quarterback and behind an imposing offensive line.

“We’re going to be run-first, then throw,” said Pendino, who is entering his fourth season as East Ridge head coach with a 15-15 record. “We’re going to put pressure on our offensive line, our fullback and our tailback to carry the load for us.”

Though Pendino said East Ridge would “spread it around” this season, the majority of the handoffs will be going to Leach — a bruising, 6-foot-2-inch, 205 pounder, who was timed at 4.6 in the 40-yard dash this offseason.

Pendino said he’d like to see Leach run for over 1,500 yards this year, which would be a school record.

“Nick has great vision,” Pendino said. “He’s a tough, physical kid and he wants the football. He’s a big kid and he’s a competitor. We’re excited to get him the ball. He’s going to carry it a lot.”

Leach said he worries more about his team’s record and is less concerned with his own stats.

“It only matters if we win the game,” Leach said. “I don’t really care about stats as long as we win. I have some personal goals of course. I want to lead the conference again. But, all I care about is W’s.”

Remarkably, East Ridge has owned the Suburban East’s leading rusher in three of its four years of existence. In 2009 and 2010, the Raptors’ Ezekiel Okeleye led the conference in rushing yards with 1,049 and 1,201 yards, respectively. In 2011, the trio of Leach, Dayo Ogundepo and Val Huerta combined for 1,189 yards. Last season, Leach ran for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns on 193 carries to lead the SEC. Including playoffs, Leach totaled 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior.

“Every single back I’ve had have all had specific skills that they shine at,” East Ridge running backs coach Randy Springer said. “Ezekiel and Dayo had really good pure speed and Val was very shifty. Nick has it all. I really believe he is the total package — and he keeps getting better at every facet of his game. That’s what separates Nick and makes him the back that he is.”

As a team, East Ridge finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards in 2009, first in 2010, seventh in 2011 and fifth in 2012. Springer has been the running backs coach at East Ridge all four years.

“When it comes down to it, coach Pendino prides himself on being able to run the football,” Springer said. “Our kids respond to that and you can tell it’s the way they’re prepared. It’s been fun.”

Springer, an elementary education teacher in District 833, was a running back at Winona State not long ago.

“We’ve been blessed to have a lot of good running backs in this program and we continue to,” he said. “But, we also have been blessed with some very good offensive lineman. That allows coach Pendino to do what he wants to do.”

Springer said what makes Leach great is hard work and a competitive fire.

“He’s never content with just being good,” Springer said. “Every day he works hard to get better — either at his all-around game or specific parts of his game. He always wants to get better. It’s hard to find kids like him. There’s kids out there that are physically gifted, and he is, but he’s not content with just being good, he wants to be the best.”

Last year East Ridge finished 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the Suburban East Conference. The Raptors reached the Section 5AAAAA championship game, but without Leach in the backfield due to a badly sprained ankle, they lost 41-14 to St. Thomas Academy to end the season.

Expectations are raised for East Ridge this season. The Raptors boast a large, experienced and talented senior class — led predominantly by their offensive line. Three linemen — J.C. Hassenauer, Matt Kelly and Keith Gordon — have started every game since the start of their sophomore season and another senior, Jake Pittman, started every game last season. Hassenauer has verbally committed to the University of Alabama and is widely considered one of the best centers in the country.

Leach said he knows he’s fortunate to have the line he possesses.

“I feel great about it,” Leach said. “It’s always nice running behind them. They pick me up. This year is going to be a lot of fun. I just can’t wait to get out there and win some games and show people what we’re about.”

East Ridge also welcomes back sophomore quarterback Seth Green, who already has scholarship offers from the University of Minnesota and University of Louisville and put together the best passing season in school history last year as a freshman — completing 55 percent of his throws for 1,418 yards and 12 scores to just five interceptions. The Raptors also return their top two leading receivers from a year ago in senior wide receiver Xavier Cole (21 catches for 560 yards and eight touchdowns) and senior tight end George Behr (29 catches for 326 and two touchdowns), who has already committed to Rutgers University.

On defense, East Ridge returns a number of starters and should be solid. However, the Raptors have suffered some big injuries this preseason, which will undoubtedly make an impact.

Two starters — senior defensive back Matt Corcoran, a captain, and defensive lineman Zack Kosel — are out for the year, and a third — junior standout defensive back Sam Cobbs — is expected to miss at least six weeks.

“We haven’t had a very healthy camp yet,” Pendino said. “We’ve got more guys hurt than I’ve ever been around. We’re hurting all over right now. It’s football. We need to try and get them healthy.”

The Raptors defense does return senior linebacker Matt Davis, a captain, defensive tackle John Hunter and senior linebacker Brad Simonson, however. Also, junior defensive back Jack Dwyer, who came over from Hill-Murray prior to last season, can suit up for East Ridge this year, along with senior 365-pound defensive lineman Marcus London, who is a transfer from Tartan.

Because of the injuries, though, Pendino said he’s going to need more offensive players, like Leach, to play on defense as well this season.

“We’re going to have to play some guys two ways more than we would’ve liked to,” he said. “But, they’re seniors and they’re going to have to go play.”

East Ridge steps up with the big boys in Class 6A this season and will likely face one of its conference foes in the first week of the playoffs. The Raptors’ season starts on Thursday, Aug. 29, at home against White Bear Lake — a team that throttled the Raptors 42-7 in last year’s regular season finale.

“This senior group isn’t looking past August 29 and our season opener against White Bear Lake,” Pendino said. “Our guys are motivated to put up a much better fight against what we know will be a very good team.”

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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