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2016 season preview: East Ridge football assumes new identity, hopes for return to state

Dominik London will be a workhorse for the Raptors this season. (Bulletin photo by Dane Mizutani)

Raptors running back Dominik London still remembers walking off the field at TCF Bank Stadium last season.

East Ridge came within a point of winning the Class 6A state championship. Instead, it watched as Osseo players hoisted the trophy following a 14-13 win in the Class 6A finals.

“I use that as motivation,” he said. “I was disappointed because I know we could’ve played better. And if I get back there I’m going to make it right this time.”

Raptors coach Dan Fritze let his players decide whether or not the team was going to use that loss as motivation this season.

“It’s something we talked about in the offseason,” Fritze said. “I left it up to the captains and they used it as motivation in the offseason. As soon as this season starts, though, it’s a clean slate for us.”

“We don’t really talk about the Osseo game too much anymore,” senior tight end Zach Bennett said. “We know it’s in the past. That said, it’s made a lot of the returners hungry and ready to get after it this season.”

East Ridge started full-padded practices on Monday morning, and with a brisk breeze blowing in, almost as if to signal the fact the fall season is right around the corner, it was clear this version of the Raptors isn’t close to the same team as it was last season.

Gone is star quarterback Otumos Payemanu as well as a massive offensive line that opened up holes with regularity game in and game out.

“We certainly aren’t going to be the same team,” Fritze said. “It’s not going to be that. We don’t know what we’re going to be yet and that’s OK. We are figuring things out and we’ll see who steps up.”

“I remember last season coming home on the bus after our opener against Lakeville North, we threw the ball 13 times,” Fritze added. “We figured out that was a little too much for us. Our kids understand that they need to work into their identity as a team. It’s not just going to happen. They have to work at it.”

East Ridge can rest on the fact that it still boasts London, perhaps the best running back in the state. London rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season, and has focused on coming back even stronger this season.

“We will lean on Dominik for sure,” Fritze said. “He’s obviously going to be a focal point for us.”

London is OK with that workload.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” London said. “It know teams key on me and that opens up a lot of areas for other players on the team.”

Aside from leading the team’s attack, London will also take some of the pressure away from the team’s new quarterback.

Ty Okada and Riley Tuckner are in direct competition to replace Payemanu. And while neither is as shifty an athlete as Payemanu, both players possess the skills to succeed at the position.

Fritze wouldn’t tip his hand too much about the quarterback position.

“It’s a competition until game time,” he said. “And even then we never know how it’s going to play out.”

East Ridge also lost some key players on the opposite side of the ball, including a few standouts on the defensive line, a talented trio of linebackers and a couple stars in the secondary.

“We are going to lean on our speed on that side of the ball,” Fritze said. “We won’t be the biggest team out there, so we’re going to have to rely on our speed.”

As players walked off the field on Monday afternoon, there was a sense of quiet confidence amid the bunch.

“We know we aren’t the same team as last season,” Fritze said. “That said, we are working hard and we’re as positive and upbeat as can be right now. That doesn’t always translate to success. You can work hard and be positive and still fail. So who knows? We have no idea what’s going to happen. Or work ethic is top notch and that’s the only thing I can ask for right now.”