WOODBURY — It was a triumphant return in more ways than one for Nate Ricci and the Stillwater football team.
The versatile senior returned from an ankle injury and raced to special teams touchdowns the first two times he touched the ball while leading the Ponies to a 24-21 Suburban East Conference victory at East Ridge on Friday.
On a blustery night when Stillwater was outplayed in several areas, it was Ricci’s first-quarter heroics, a fourth-quarter field goal by Danny Laudet and a late defensive stand that paved the way to another victory — despite numbers that might normally suggest a different outcome, especially considering the following:
n The Ponies were outgained 341-127.
n East Ridge racked up 24 first downs, compared to 7 for the Ponies.
n The Raptors ran 76 offensive plays, nearly double Stillwater’s total (40).
“In this conference, it’s not always going to be pretty,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “We’re going to be happy with the fact that our guys showed a lot of grit. There wasn’t a lot of glory out there, but there sure was a lot of guts and we were gritty. Not a lot of teams can say that when things aren’t going their way they’re still gritty, and for that we’re thankful.”
Friday’s victory keeps Stillwater in the running for its third conference title in four years. The Ponies (5-1 SEC, 5-1) join Mounds View (5-1, 5-1) atop the league standings with two games remaining, although Stillwater faces a tougher schedule over the final two weeks with games against Roseville and Hastings, whose combined record of 6-6 is more impressive than Mounds View’s remaining opponents Forest Lake (0-6) and Park (1-5).
Stillwater’s determination was on display for the second week in a row while facing the loss of leading rusher Nick Anderson, who suffered an arm injury after gaining 208 yards in the previous week’s victory over Mounds View — a game that saw Ricci relegated to the sideline.
The Ponies also played without starting offensive lineman Danny Buege, but thanks to Ricci and sound blocking on special teams the Ponies grabbed a 14-0 lead before even running a play from scrimmage.
Ricci raced 93 yards for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and, after the Ponies forced East Ridge to punt, he took the ensuing return 75 yards for his second punt return touchdown of the season and third in his career.
“It was great,” Ricci said. “Missing Mounds View last week, it was really hard to be on the sidelines and the way it started out was really good to get back in the swing of things. It felt great to be back out there with the team.”
It was a feeling shared by his coach.
“We spend a lot of time and we put a lot of focus on special teams and obviously they’re significantly better with Nate back there,” LaBore said. “He’s a dynamic football player that if we can just give him a couple creases he can make things happen.
“Our offense didn’t have much production, but similar to our defense our special teams made some big plays. We also put them in situations where they had to drive the length of the field, which makes a huge difference.”
Ricci’s big plays were limited to the first half, but he delivered a gutsy performance in the second half after re-injuring his ankle on Stillwater’s first play. He missed two series before hobbling back into the game in the fourth quarter to help orchestrate a drive to set up Laudet’s 30-yard field goal with 7:05 remaining for a 24-14 lead.
From there, it was up to the defense.
East Ridge answered with an 11-play scoring drive capped by Austin Kamrath’s 4-yard touchdown run with three minutes remaining in the game.
Stillwater was unable to gain a first down the Raptors took over at the Ponies’ 29 after a short punt into the wind with 2:36 remaining. Linebacker Cody Floen, however, stopped Nicholas Leach for a short gain on third-and-4 and dropped him for a 1-yard loss on fourth down to seal the victory for Stillwater.
The Ponies are allowing more than 300 yards per game this season — which ranks fifth among conference teams — but only Mounds View has allowed fewer points than Stillwater.
“We’ve made a little bit of a habit of bending but not breaking and that’s what it really comes down to and our defensive staff and our defensive coordinator Mark Elmer keep finding a way to get our guys in positions and our guys come up with making those plays in critical situations,” LaBore said. “Offense might win you a game, but defense is always going to be the reason why you win a championship. We’ve got a long way to go before it’s a championship, but our defense has put us in that position.”
Floen finished with 11 solo tackles and added a fumble recovery to rack up a season-high 30 defensive points. Jason Kleidosty added 10 solo tackles and two assisted tackles for a defense that spent most of the night on the field.
Asked about what it says that the Ponies have been able to win games without its starting quarterback last week and running back against the Raptors, Ricci didn’t hesitate.
“I think it says a lot about our defense, first of all, and coming up with some crucial stops when we really needed it,” Ricci said. “Our whole team played with a lot of grit tonight and a lot of perseverance. Coach said there’s going to be ups and downs and there were, and we handled those ups and downs really well and didn’t get too high, didn’t get too low, so I was very proud of the guys.”
After falling behind early, East Ridge pulled within 14-6 on Leach’s 8-yard touchdown scamper on third-and-goal with two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Leach followed with a 12-yard touchdown run just 15 seconds into the second quarter to even the score after freshman quarterback Seth Green hooked up with Alexander Pope for the two-point conversion.
The Ponies did not muster a first down until midway through the second quarter and produced three of their seven first downs on a nine-play, 46-yard drive capped by Ricci’s 3-yard scoring pass to Matt Anderson with 3:38 remaining in the half.
“We didn’t do a whole lot on offense, the stats make that fairly clear, but we put together a key drive to put us up at the half and we strung together enough plays to get an opportunity to get the final three points, which ended up being the difference,” LaBore said.
The Raptors feature the best rushing defense in the conference, but also rank dead last in passing yards allowed. Friday’s strong winds made throwing the ball difficult and that clearly worked in East Ridge’s favor as Stillwater managed just 32 yards on 17 rushing attempts.
“I’m thoroughly impressed with East Ridge and how they played,” LaBore said. “They were exactly as advertised. They were young, but experienced, they’re big and they’ve got very good team speed and they bring the shoulder pads. We feel fortunate because we were able to make some big plays and were able to play good field position football and when we absolutely had to come up with plays on defense and in some situations on offense, we did.”
Leach, who is the SEC’s leading rusher, finished with 159 yards on 34 attempts with two touchdowns.
“We played well enough to win it,” East Ridge coach Mike Pendino said. “They’re a good football team. We thought going in that this was going to be the best football team we’ve played so far this year and they won the game.”
With three punt returns for touchdowns, Ricci now shares the Stillwater team record for most in a career with Gregg Thompson (1975-77), Aaron Runk (1993-95) and Richie Juelich (2000-01). Ricci also become the program’s all-time leading punt returner on Friday with 451 yards and counting — a gaudy average of 21.5 yards per return.
Thompson previously owned those records with 411 yards on 25 returns for a 16.4 avg. Ricci is averaging 35.6 yards per return, which exceeds the current team record (25.6 avg.) in a season set by Chad Rogness in 1993.
n It was a case of déjà vu for Ponies coach Beau LaBore on Friday when Ricci ran the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Stillwater’s first-ever game at East Ridge. LaBore was coaching at Woodbury against the Raptors in the first game ever played at the stadium and, you guessed it, the Royals returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown.
“As unlikely as it is, I would love for the next time I coach a game there to have the first three times go to the house,” LaBore said.
n Ricci threw a touchdown pass in addition to scoring on punt and kickoff returns, which was remindful of another versatile scoring effort by Richie Juelich in 2001. In that game against Forest Lake, Juelich scored touchdowns on a pass reception, an interception return and a punt return.
Stillwater 14 7 0 3 — 24
East Ridge 6 8 0 7 — 21
St — Nate Ricci 93 kickoff return (Danny Laudet kick) 11:45.
St — Ricci 75 punt return (Laudet kick) 8:36.
ER — Nicholas Leach 8 run (kick failed) 2:17.
ER — Leach 12 run (Alexander Pope from Seth Green) 11:45.
St — Matt Anderson 3 pass from Ricci (Laudet kick) 3:38.
St — FG Laudet 30, 7:05.
ER — Austin Kamrath 4 run (Merlin Erickson kick) 3:01.
First downs 7 24
Rushes-yards 19-32 53-198
Passing yards 95 143
Total yards 127 341
Comp-Att-Int. 11-21-0 11-23-0
Fumbles/lost 1/1 4/2
Penalties/yards 4/38 6/55
Punts/avg. 5/37.8 4/26.25
Rushing — St: Nate Ricci 9-19, Clay Roth 5-7, David Peterson 4-6 and team 1-0; ER: Nicholas Leach 34-159, Seth Green 15-40, Austin Kamrath 3-4 and Stephen Orehosky 1-(-5).
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — St: Nate Ricci 11-18-95-1-0 and Trevor Tillett 0-3-0-0-0; ER: Seth Green 11-23-143-0-0.
Receiving — St: Chris Rick 4-48, Joey Quinn 4-29 and Matt Anderson 3-18; ER: Xavier Cole 3-53, Keith Durham 3-31, Nicholas Leach 2-29, George Behr 2-20 and Austin Kamrath 1-10.
Kickoff returns — St: Nate Ricci 1-93 and Grant Moden 1-17; ER: Samuel Cobbs 2-18.
Punt returns — St: Nate Ricci 1-75; ER: none.
Interceptions — St: none; ER: none.
Fumble recoveries — St: Cody Floen 1-0 and Marvin Lerol 1-0; ER: Tucker Ledo 1-0.