A number of Erie players and fans sent their well wishes to injured star running back Noah Roper over the weekend and into the holiday via social media.
What was feared is true, as Tigers coach Chad Cooper told his team at Monday morning’s practice that Roper will miss the rest of the postseason after suffering a leg injury in the Tigers’ 34-0 win over Green Mountain in the 3A quarterfinals on Friday night.
Moving forward, the message is clear: “Win one for Noah,” Erie’s coach said. And, if anybody forgot, “we’re still a very good team.”
The No. 3 Tigers (12-0) will travel to Dutch Clark Stadium to face No. 2 Pueblo East (10-2) in Saturday’s semifinals without their senior back, who was injured in the third quarter Friday night as he shoveled through tacklers for more yards before his leg appeared to get rolled on.
“Kind of the message I had for everyone and that I had for the game is everyone just needs to do a little more,” Cooper said. “You never replace a Noah Roper. Obviously, his statistics and what he’s done for us the past two years has been incredible. But I think everyone is in that mindset that, ‘if I just do a little bit more and do my job, we can still have success and win on Saturday’.”
The key to a victory in Pueblo may center around its harassing defensive line.
Seniors Jaymeson Nelms and Nate Hackney lead the way for a unit that has punished quarterbacks and dismounted rushing attacks at a high clip so far. Through two games in the postseason, Erie’s defense hasn’t surrendered a point.
“Our defensive line can in terms take over games,” Cooper said. “We put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks in the first two rounds and I think we’ve taken a huge step forward in being a physical defense (this season).”
In fact, in Friday’s win over Green Mountain it seemed like anytime the Rams found a rhythm on a drive it was quickly halted by a momentum-swinging play. A big sack from Hackney here, a strip-sack from Nelms there — they’ll likely need plenty of it against the dynamic offense of Pueblo East.
“We all try to focus on doing our specific job,” Nelms said. “And when plays need to be made, we make those plays.”
The Eagles offense features dual-threat quarterback Luc Andrada and a UCLA commit in Kain Medrano. In their 42-0 quarterfinals win over Discovery Canyon, Andrada threw for two scores and ran for another two, and Medrano added a receiving TD and had a 68-yard punt return for a score.
Cooper said the focus is to keep Andrada in the pocket and limit the big plays.
Of course, “easier said than done,” he quipped.
Regardless, his team is up for the challenge.
“Everybody’s been putting in more effort,” Hackney said Monday. “During film, it was really intensive film. Everybody was taking notes. It feels like everyone is putting it all together and putting a little more into things.”
Offensively without Roper, the Tigers will need more volume from players like quarterback Gavin Mendoza. The junior has been effective this season in the air and on the ground, throwing nine touchdowns to just one interception while averaging six yards per carry.
Tyler Gardner, who had 55 all-purpose yards in relief of Roper in the quarterfinals, is expected to lead the running backs.
With a win, Erie will head back to the state title game for a second straight season and the second time in three years under Cooper. Saturday’s game is at 1 p.m.
Brent W. New: email@example.com and @brentwnew