Football: Challenges keep coming for Ponies with trip to East Ridge

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It’s been a tough three weeks for the Stillwater football team and Friday’s opponent offers little in the way of a reprieve as the Ponies travel to East Ridge for a Suburban East Conference game. The Raptors (5-1 SEC, 5-1) blanked Forest Lake 42-0 a week ago to remain atop the league standings while Stillwater (3-3) has lost three in a row to fall out of the conference chase. Cretin-Derham Hall handed East Ridge a 10-7 loss in Week 5, but the Raptors have won their remaining five games by an average margin of 34 points per game. Stillwater has won each of the two previous meetings in this series, including a 24-21 victory a year ago. This is easily the best team East Ridge has put on the field since its inception in 2009.

“Week in and week out, we worry more about ourselves than our opponent,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “We’re going to play a good football team, but if you start fast and play with our shoulder pads the entire game there’s no doubt we can be very successful.”

10-10 spo-fb Knox colThe Raptors are averaging a league-high 417.3 yards per game this season and giving up a conference-low 220.7 yards. Stillwater’s strength is running the ball, but the Raptors have allowed just 329 rushing yards all season — less than half the total allowed by the SEC’s second-best defense against the run. Alabama recruit J.C. Hassenauer anchors the offensive line at center while tight end George Behr has committed to Rutgers. Quarterback Seth Green is also a highly touted recruit despite being a sophomore. The Raptors did lose talented running back Nick Leach, who led the league in rushing before suffering a season-ending knee injury, but freshman Dominik London has filled in nicely while gaining 403 yards on 52 attempts (7.8 avg.). Xavier Cole has caught 18 passes for 333 yards (18.5 avg.) and five touchdowns while Kjatil Cline has 14 receptions for 284 yards (20.3 avg.) and three scores.

“East Ridge is one of the most talented teams in SEC history,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “They’re very solid on offense and they did suffer a season-ending injury to one of the best running backs in the state, but London is pretty nifty too. They are very big up front and their offense is very experienced with half of those players getting time or a whole season as sophomores. Almost the entire offense played as juniors and they have Division I scholarships offered of committed at tight end, center and quarterback. Defensively, they’re also very experienced with most of the team returning from last year. Offensively, they are big and talented and on the d-line they have three guys that average 300 pounds. They’re big and they’re tough to move around.”

10-10 spo-fb O’KeefeThe Ponies were outplayed on both sides of the ball in last year’s victory, but special teams provided the biggest difference on the scoreboard. Stillwater ranks fourth in the conference while averaging 345 yards per game, but are eight in total defense while giving up 356.8 yards per contest. Only East Ridge, however, has allowed fewer rushing yards than the Ponies (772) this season.

“They are definitely a team that wants to establish the line of scrimmage and wants to run first and pass second, but with Green they are more willing to run play-action and what separates them from a lot of teams is his ability to throw the ball down the field,” LaBore said.

The Ponies hope to have offensive lineman Joe Knaap back for Friday’s game, but senior captain and linebacker David Peterson is not expected to play.

“There are a lot of things we can do better and if we do them we can play with and beat anybody that’s lined up across from us,” LaBore said. “We’re really only guaranteed three weeks of football so the time and opportunities are dwindling. There’s no time like the present to make sure they don’t have any regrets.”