Capturing, in a word, their mottos for the 2015 football season, Osseo’s program cover reads “Dominate” and East Ridge’s says “Finish.”
The best word to represent their place in the Class 6A Prep Bowl? Unexpected.
Osseo, one of the smallest programs in the large-school class, overcame a three-game losing streak. Woodbury-based East Ridge was beset by offseason departures, including its coach only days before practice began. Both are now primed to win their first football championship.
Certainly, the Orioles (9-3) and Raptors (11-1) earned the right to take the field at 7 p.m. Friday at TCF Bank Stadium. Their journeys include loss, discovery and big hearts.
The teams met in the section final on Halloween last year, a 20-17 East Ridge victory. Three prominent Raptors players on the field — none of them seniors — and their coach, Mike Pendino, left the program in the following months.
Assistant coach Dan Fritze took over only five days before the season started. While the first game at Lakeville North ended in a 21-7 loss, the Raptors found an offensive identity. They would run the ball often behind a jackhammer offensive line and play solid defense.
Osseo started the season 3-0 before injuries strained a talented but thin starting corps. Running back Prince Kruah missed the Totino-Grace loss and took limited snaps against Champlin Park and Centennial. Outside linebacker Joe Soumie missed time, as did center Jared Schmeling.
Pain in his right side dogged Schmeling throughout the Champlin Park game. A hospital visit the next day revealed his appendix ruptured during the game.
“The doctor said that if I had gone longer, I could have had internal bleeding and that can be fatal,” said Schmeling, whose departure from the lineup meant moving big Nash Jensen (6-4, 315) from tight end to tackle and further limiting the play-calling.
The Orioles fell to 3-3, but coaches saw issues beyond injuries and told players as much.
“It was definitely a turning point,” said senior Damario Armstrong, a dynamic safety and receiver. “We took a look at ourselves and asked, ‘Who do we want to be?’ We could have just felt bad for ourselves and kept losing, but we decided to turn it around.”
East Ridge, meanwhile, got rolling and vanquished East Metro Blue subdistrict powers Mounds View, Stillwater and Cretin-Derham Hall. New quarterback Otumos Payemanu, along with running back Dominik London and fullback Connor Mohs, paced the Raptors’ offensive attack.
An experienced offensive line weighing in at more than 1,300 combined pounds paved the way. Then coaches started swinging the wrecking ball faster. Each week, East Ridge called plays at a quicker tempo.
“We didn’t get to full steam until probably the Woodbury game,” said Fritze, whose Raptors closed the regular season with a victory against the Royals to win the East Metro Blue subdistrict title outright.
East Ridge earned a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Osseo, with a 5-3 record, drew jeers for its No. 2 seed.
Each team rode its featured running back and got some key special teams plays during the four-game playoff run. London rushed 44 times for 243 yards to beat Wayzata while Kruah averaged 36 carries and 225 yards per game.
East Ridge faked a field goal and scored a touchdown to beat Prior Lake while kicker Grant Ryerse won the Wayzata game with a 42-yard field goal. For the Orioles, a successful fake punt started their semifinal comeback against Totino-Grace and a two-point conversion sealed the victory.
“The thing about football is, anything can happen at any given moment to change the game,” Armstrong said.
Mohs said: “It’s been quite the emotional ride, but it’s awesome. We’ve come together as less of a team, more of a family.”