Football: Challenges piling up for Ponies in pursuit of SEC title

Gazette photo by Scott Ertle
The Stillwater football team will try to maintain its grip on first place in the Suburban East Conference when it hosts Roseville on Friday at Pony Stadium.

It has been a challenging stretch for the Stillwater football team, with injuries claiming top offensive threats Nate Ricci and Nick Anderson and at least three starting offensive linemen for all or parts of the past three weeks, but the Ponies (5-1 SEC, 5-1) have persevered with three straight victories to pull even with Mounds View (5-1, 5-1) in the Suburban East Conference standings. After escaping East Ridge with a 24-21 victory on Friday, Stillwater faces another stiff test this week in visiting Roseville (3-3), which is riding its own two-game winning streak after victories over Forest Lake (42-14) and Woodbury (36-22). The Ponies won last year’s match-up with Roseville 28-25 and lead the all-time series 16-5.

Stillwater took a big hit this week when it was determined that Anderson will require surgery on his elbow which will cause him to miss the rest of the year — and a chunk of the hockey season as well.

“I think the Mounds View game was by far Nick’s best performance — when we needed his best performance — and it just shows you that he’s one of the best athletes in the conference and if you have to go out on a game, that was a heck of a one to finish on,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “But obviously it’s disappointing because his season is cut short and we’re without one of the best backs in the conference. We as a team, have some big shoes to fill and that mean’s everybody has to step up just a little more. Somebody is going to go in there and take his carries and take his place and step up.”

Roseville leads the SEC in total offense while averaging 389.3 yards per game and ranks third at more than 28 points per game. Leading the way is junior quarterback Jacques Perra, who has completed 89 of 173 passes (51.4 percent) for 1,325 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions, and is also a capable runners. Matt Peckham leads a balanced rushing attack with 209 yards on 43 carries (4.9 avg.). Logan Brown ranks second in the conference with 512 yards on 25 catches, including two touchdowns, for a gaudy 20.5 average while Connor Perra has 13 catches for 183 yards (14.1) and one touchdown.

“(Jacques Perra) started as a sophomore last year and didn’t look like a sophomore,” LaBore said. “This year he’s taken more authority, responsibility and he can drop back and pass and he can run some option and has a knack for being able to extend the play.”

The league’s top two punters will also square off in this game as Jordan Berdich currently carries a 39.5-yard average and Stillwater’s Danny Laudet isn’t far behind at 37.1 yards per kick. Tommy Arcand has returned a kick-off for a touchdown this season. The Raiders have forced a league-high 20 turnovers and feature a plus-10 turnover margin, but also rank among the highest teams in the SEC with 44 penalties for 361 yards, compared to 27 penalties for 226 yards for the Ponies. Roseville ranks sixth in the conference in total defense while allowing 303.7 yards per game, one spot behind the Ponies.

“They have the No. 1-ranked offense and their defense hasn’t been too shabby,” LaBore said. “From what it sounded like they had an injury or two to start the season, but they’re definitely a formidable team. We saw firsthand last week that a team can be 3-3 in this conference and be a heckuva ball team. They have one of the best kickers in the conference, too. They can score, we need to make sure the field is long for them.”

Anderson and offensive lineman Danny Buege — Derrick Thingvold returned to the lineup last week — aren’t the only injury concerns for the Ponies after versatile quarterback and special teams standout Nate Ricci re-injured his ankle in the victory over East Ridge. His status remains uncertain for Friday. In addition to three special teams returns for touchdowns, Ricci has rushed for 270 yards on 56 attempts and completed 37 of 63 passes (58.7 percent) and four touchdowns with four interceptions. Joey Quinn with 16 catches for 244 yards (15.3 avg.) and Chris Rick with 14 receptions for 206 yards (14.7) are the team’s top receiving threats.

n Also on Friday, the Ponies hosting their annual food drive for Valley Outreach.