East Ridge (7-1; 7-1 SEC) defeated Hastings 35-6 on the road Wednesday in the regular season finale to earn sole possession of the conference title – its first in school history – and what will most likely be a No. 1 seed in next week’s playoffs.
“The kids are excited,” East Ridge head coach Mike Pendino said. “It takes the administration we have here behind us, the parents, the kids and the coaches. Everybody is in. That’s what we set out to do. It took all eight games to get it done.”
East Ridge’s defense forced three turnovers and recovered a fumble in Hastings’ end zone for a touchdown and freshman running back Dominik London went over 100 yards rushing as the Raptors – ranked tied for second in Class 6A in the most recent Associated Press poll – took care of business against the Raiders (3-5; 3-5 SEC).
“Every time we go down there it’s tough,” Pendino said. “They’re never easy. They’re very well coached and they play as physical as any team, every year.”
East Ridge senior linebacker Brad Simonson – who had two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the game – said the conference title was important.
“We were all thinking about it,” Simonson said. “This was the goal – to be conference champions.”
All was not cheerful for East Ridge, however. The Raptors were ravished with injuries to key starters in the game. Sophomore receiver Kjetil Cline suffered a high ankle sprain in the first half, senior guard Jacob Pittman suffered a head injury and senior center J.C. Hassenauer, an Alabama recruit and the top-ranked center in the country, left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury and didn’t return.
With the injuries on the offensive line, East Ridge moved senior Matt Kelly to center and sophomore Brock Albrecht played guard.
“We got some encouraging news on JC and encouraging news on Pittman leaving the field,” Pendino said. “We’ll just have to see how it plays out. It’s football, though, and we’re going to have to have other guys step up.”
Despite the adversity, East Ridge scored critical touchdowns on both sides of halftime. Already up 14-6, the Raptors closed the first half with a seven-play, 63-yard touchdown drive in 1 minute, 37 seconds to take a 21-6 lead into the break. East Ridge sophomore quarterback Seth Green was 3-for-3 for 42 yards on the drive and ran three times for 17 yards, including a 1-yard sneak for the touchdown with nine seconds left in the half.
“Seth showed what he is all about in that drive,” Pendino said. “The kids did a nice job. Absolutely it was a key drive. We needed those points down there to end the half.”
In the second half, after East Ridge was forced to punt on its first possession, Hastings fumbled the ensuing punt and Simonson recovered the ball on the Raiders’ 41-yard line. Five plays later the Raptors went ahead 28-6 as London punched in a 1-yard touchdown with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter.
“Anytime you can get turnovers it’s good, especially since we turned it over three times tonight too,” Pendino said.
East Ridge stumbled a bit out of the gates, but got its footing late in the first quarter to go ahead 7-0. After an interception returned for a touchdown by the Raptors’ Kjetil Cline was called back because of a personal foul penalty, East Ridge put together a 10-play drive that started at its own 37-yard line and ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by running back Austin Kamrath with 34 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Hastings punched back, though, scoring on the following possession to make it 7-6, but missed the extra point.
East Ridge’s defense then provided some offense.
Deep inside Hastings’ territory Simonson sacked Hastings senior quarterback Brandon McCarthy, who fumbled, and senior linebacker Nate Galvan recovered the ball in the Raiders’ end zone for a Raptors’ touchdown, making it a 14-6 game with 3:24 remaining in the half.
“These guys put up a lot of points and they play hard, but our defense came to play,” Simonson said. “The field was slippery. We were sliding around out there, but managed to play well and pull out the win.”
East Ridge sophomore defensive end Jo Jo Garcia also recovered a Hastings’ fumble, in the fourth quarter, on a ball that was mishandled at the mesh point by the Raiders and Green finished the scoring in the game with a 27-yard touchdown run.
For East Ridge, London finished the game with 137 yards rushing and a touchdown on 21 carries.
“My line did a very good job, those holes were just opening up and we were getting positive yards,” London said. “That’s all that matters. I couldn’t wish for a better line. It’s so amazing to have the holes right there. I trust them and rely on them.”
In addition to London, Kamrath ran the ball eight times for 29 yards and a touchdown. Green was 9-for-16 passing for 117 yards and three interceptions, but added 10 rushes for 25 yards and two touchdowns. A variety of receivers caught balls, but senior George Behr led the way with two catches for 37 yards.
East Ridge’s win very likely sealed a No. 1 seed in the Class 6A, Section 4 playoffs for the Raptors and a date with Forest Lake in the first round, however, official brackets won’t be made until Thursday.
“The goal now is to go all the way to state,” Simonson said.