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East Ridge Football: Raptors on brink of history

Raptors players face the American flag before the start of the game against Maple Grove last week. East Ridge will take on Osseo for the Class 6A title on Friday night. (Staff photo by Dane Mizutani)

A matchup against Osseo on Friday night in the finals of the Class 6A playoffs is the only thing separating East Ridge from program history. That in and of itself is an incredible feat for the Raptors considering the amount of uncertainty that surrounded the program a few months ago.

It’s no secret by now that East Ridge was forced to forfeit victories from the past two seasons in early July because of the use of an ineligible player. That, coupled with the resignation of former head coach Mike Pendino mere days before the start of the season, left the program in uncertainty.

Enter coach Dan Fritze.

Fritze, the longtime offensive coordinator with the program, took over for Pendino, and with the help of his captains, immediately got the team back on track.

There was a team meeting before the start of the season, Fritze said. There were speeches from various players. There were hugs. There were some tears. And that was that. As soon as that team meeting wrapped up the focus shifted toward what Fritze thought had the potential to be a very special season.   

A few months and 11 wins later, the Raptors can almost taste their first Class 6A title in program history. They will have to get past a tough Orioles team in order to accomplish that goal.

Osseo (9-3) is no slouch. It beat powerhouse teams like Lakeville North and Totino-Grace on its way to the Class 6A finals, and boasts weapons like running back Prince Kruah, quarterback Max Gaillard and wide receiver Damario Armstrong. Kruah is the leader of the bunch as he has more 1,600 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns this season.

Those things don’t matter to East Ridge, though, and not because it doesn’t respect its opponent. Those things simply don’t matter because of a philosophy that Fritze has preached the entire season.

“We don’t focus on the other team,” Fritze has said time and time again this season. “We focus on ourselves.”

That’s proven successful for the Raptors so far.

East Ridge (11-1) boasts perhaps the best one-two punch in the state in the form of quarterback Otumos Payemanu and running back Dominik London. Payemanu has 1,076 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns this season, while Dominik London has 20 rushing touchdowns and eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark last week in the win over Maple Grove.

And when Payemanu and London aren’t wreaking havoc, the Raptors unit on the other end of the field has proven to be more than serviceable thanks in part to the leadership skills of linebacker Alex Johnson and safety Griffin Davis, among others. Josh Knazze, a playmaking linebacker, leads the team with an impressive 83 tackles on the season. He also has an interception, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.

East Ridge, a team that scores more than 32 points per game, only allows about 18 points per game. It has managed to stop the run with regularity this the season — something that bodes well heading into a matchup with a ground-and-pound team like Osseo.

While he has preached many life lessons over the course of a tumultuous season, perhaps the message Fritze has pounded home more than anything is to soak in the moment. He does it for at least a few seconds after every game, and makes sure his players do the same.

That shouldn’t be a problem at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday night. The moment doesn’t get any bigger than that.