Dan Fritze expected to be coaching football at East Ridge this fall. Nothing prepared him, however, for addressing wounded players as their interim head coach, a role he accepted just five days before the season’s start.
After reaching their first state tournament last fall, returning Raptors players endured a tumultuous offseason not of their making.
Two highly touted players — quarterback Seth Green, who committed to Oregon, and defensive lineman Jojo Garcia, who committed to the Gophers — departed a season earlier than expected. Green transferred to Allen, Texas, and Garcia to Simley.
Garcia left after a district investigation found he was never eligible for varsity competition at East Ridge based on residence requirements. As a result, the football program vacated all its victories from the 2013 and 2014 seasons and its section and conference titles.
Then coach Mike Pendino resigned one week before the season started. The school’s athletics department drew heavy public scrutiny for the appearance of a win-at-any-cost culture.
Aware of the swirling concerns, Fritze, an assistant coach since the Woodbury-based school opened in 2009, gathered players for a meeting on the season’s first day.
“There was no football,” Fritze said. “We talked and some guys cried. It was about life and having the team be something you can go to. That’s never happened before and that really set the tone.”
Unified East Ridge players picked up the pieces and embarked on a promising season. They hung tough in a season-opening loss at Lakeville North. They defeated Mounds View for the first time in school history. And the Raptors (3-1) are getting votes in the Associated Press poll as they prepare to play Cretin-Derham Hall at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of St. Thomas.
Football has been players’ focus.
“Anyone on the team would have gotten crazy questions,” senior offensive lineman Brock Albrecht said. “We just answered with, ‘We’re going to be a dominant team this year. No matter who we’ve got playing for us, we’re going to be competitors.’ ”
The addition of quarterback Otumus Payemanu, a senior who transferred from North Carolina, helped offset Green’s loss. Fritze calls Payemanu “one of those very positive, always-smiling kids who is goofy in a good way. Nothing gets to him.”
Payemanu, a solid runner, junior running back Dominik London and a veteran offensive line Fritze considers the best East Ridge unit ever in the trenches, gives the offense its identity.
London averages 140.8 yards per game, more than 20 yards better than at this point last season.
Other players have stepped into bigger roles. Senior middle linebacker Joshua Knazze’s interception early against Mounds View set up a score and inspired the team.
Carter Dowdle, already a standout left guard, built himself into a solid defensive tackle and helped offset the loss of Garcia.
The word “maturity” was used as Fritze described the growth of London and Dowdle. But then, returning players were forced to grow up fast.
“I’m sure that anything you go through in life that’s difficult, you’re going to mature,” Fritze said. “I think our team did that. Coming together as a team isn’t just talk. It’s real for these guys. I haven’t seen it like this team.”
At practice earlier this week, late afternoon sunlight reflected harshly off the silver visitors’ bleachers. Players gathered at midfield for a passing drill.
A cloud moved overhead like an island of gray in a blue sea. Raindrops fell. Not one player seemed to notice.