What started as a fill-in situation during practice turned into having the center from Erie’s vaunted offensive line returning kicks full-time.
The sight of it is something else.
“Oh … alright?,” a puzzled coach Jeff Giger remembers thinking to himself when he realized his special teams’ coordinator had put the team’s veteran offensive lineman and star linebacker, Ryan McConnell, back deep.
“I didn’t even know he was returning kicks until he was back there for one of the games,” the Tigers’ first-year coach admitted. “It scares me sometimes, but at the same time he’s one of the best, and you got to put him back there, put the ball in his hands and see what happens.”
The result has been solid for the kicking game. As any prop bet for fastest offensive lineman in the state should already have a shoo-in favorite with McConnell.
The senior, when talking about it, said he has nearly taken it to the house on a number of occasions this fall. It’s just a matter of time. “Every time I take it, I feel like I have a lot of grass, then someone gets me right before I’m there,” he sighed.
More importantly though, it’s this kind of commitment that unveils a deeper trend inside Erie’s program.
Throughout the year, players and coaches have commented that it’s a whatever-is-needed, will-be-done mindset that has guided the way in 2021. Strength from this ideal, Erie has won 11 straight — all in dominating fashion — and heads into a Class 4A quarterfinals matchup with Palmer Ridge Saturday.
“We had to learn to play for each other and learn how to buy into that,” Giger said. “That’s probably the toughest thing for any of us. We want to make sure we have self-gratification. All of us do. But learning and actually getting the feeling of how much better it feels to actually be out there playing for someone else and seeing someone else’s success, I think we’re getting there. I really do.”
From Day 1 at Erie, Giger said it was his hope to build a tough-minded team with players persistent in playing for the guy next to them. Even with a resumé like the coach’s, though — which includes two state titles and winning teams at every stop — like any new partnership, Giger said the buy-in for all parities took time.
McConnell (whether blocking a 300-pound nose tackle or doing his best Prime Time impersonation) has been a constant reaffirmation of it.
“I would say he’s our heart and soul of this team,” Giger said. “He does anything and everything and has a smile on his face and loves doing it.”
Outside of taking kicks, do-it-all McConnell had 51 tackles, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and five sacks as a linebacker in the regular season. Offensively, he helps make up one of the state’s most domineering offensive lines. A front that includes Kansas State commit John Pastore has also seen elevated play from Logan Gilmore, Christian Shattuck and Caleb Foster, Giger pointed out.
“We are all best friends,” McConnell said. “We have a really good bond. We’re on the same page most of the time. And that’s why we’re averaging over a first down every time we touch the ball.”
Erie’s offense has averaged 9.6 yards per run and 17.5 yards per completion. It has scored 515 points in 11 games, many of which have been out-of-hand by halftime.
A matchup with the Bears will likely pose a different challenge, a tighter contest for one.
“We’re ready to have closer games,” McConnell said. “We don’t expect to blow out every team that we play. We’re ready.”
The game is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Don Breese Stadium in Monument.
No. 5 Erie at No. 4 Palmer Ridge
Details: Saturday, 1 p.m., at Don Breese Stadium
Forecast: The last time Erie faced Palmer Ridge was in the 2017 title game. The Bears went on to win that. But from then to now, this Tigers team looks different. A multi-faceted offensive juggernaut is where it starts. Standout quarterback Blake Barnett and a star in running back Caleb Theisen are just a few of the faces attached to an offensive wrecking ball. Barnett has 43 total TDs this season. Theisen has gone over the century mark on the ground in seven games. Currently, he averages more than 13 yards on every touch.
Difference-maker: Palmer Ridge sophomore quarterback Derek Hester has thrown for 2,000 yards this season. Watch to see if a guy like Erie sophomore Jackson Cowgill can make him more uncomfortable. Cowgill had seven sacks coming into the postseason.