Patriot star a blend of savage, selfless

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Gabe Konerding, right, has used a fusion of strength and speed to establish himself as both the leading rusher and top tackler for the Heritage Hills football team. Knee and ankle injuries have curbed Konerding this season, but he’s adopted a defense-only role as of late and hopes to be back playing both ways for next week’s sectional opener against Evansville Memorial.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

The door from the locker room opens and Gabe Konerding emerges.

As it likely is most days, the muscular senior is the first one to venture toward the practice field adjacent to “The Jungle” in Lincoln City. These are the crucial days, in Konerding’s mind. Because if Heritage Hills practices hard and fixes its mistakes and learns from them and gets better from them, then Friday just flows.

He’ll probably still review all the plays for five to 10 minutes each hour leading up to the game, but otherwise, if things run smoothly during the week, his thoughts can remain free on Friday nights.

“If we had a good week of practice, it’s all natural by the time the game comes around,” Konerding says.

It’s been that way for some time. Konerding appears built of one part boulder and one part brass. His coach watches in wonderment as the 5-foot-10, 187-pound mass thunders through a 400-meter race during the spring track season. And when the Patriot football team endures quarter-mile burners during summer conditioning, it’s typically a race for second place.

“He’d be one of those kids that would show up on the first day of summer and beat everybody by 20, 30 yards,” Patriot coach Todd Wilkerson says. “He’s just never out of shape.”

Classmate Ryan Baker thinks back to a youth league playoff game in sixth grade. While offense at that level moved as fluidly as rush-hour traffic, Konerding scampered for an 80-yard score in a 6-0 win.

“He’s always been the best,” Baker says.

“(Each year) we’d think, ”˜Wow, maybe we’ll catch up to Gabe this year.’ But he always just raises the bar.”

But even a guy who’s amassed more than 1,400 rushing yards and 110 tackles spanning back to last year doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to hear about the yards. He doesn’t want to talk about tackles. He doesn’t want to talk about any of the statistical quantifications that suggest that he’s a pretty darn good football player.

And he sure as heck doesn’t want to talk about how, just like a lot of his teammates, he’s been banged up all season.

“Some weeks are tougher than others,” Konerding says of his knee and ankle injuries. “It all depends on how the game goes and how we play.”

His answers are courteously adequate. He rarely expounds on himself, as if he missed the day in English class when pupils were introduced to the first-person singular. Each response he gives veers down the familiar avenue of “the team, the team, the team.”

“He doesn’t say a lot. He’s not a man of many words. He just shows by his actions, and he’s going to work his butt off. And you need that. You have to have that on a football team,” Wilkerson says. “You have to have some guys that you can look to that are just going to lead you by pushing everybody else. Be out in front on drills. Work without saying anything, don’t complain about anything, just keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working. And that’s what he’s done all year.”

It’s difficult for the second-year coach to compare Konerding from this season to last.

A healthy Konerding melded his speed and strength so effectively and so powerfully as a junior. He gashed a formidable Southridge team for 138 rushing yards and a 76-yard kick return that, coupled with five tackles and a sack, Wilkerson deems “probably the best all-around game that I’ve seen him play.”

Yet a knee problem surfaced during track season, and it’s become “an ongoing thing,” Konerding says. His cartilage becomes irritated, his knee begins to ache and he can’t completely do what he could before. Compounding the problem, the Patriots were without starting quarterback Logan Wilkerson for the first four weeks, placing more weight on Konerding’s shoulders.

In the weeks following the Pats’ 30-22 win over North Posey on Sept. 20, during which Konerding amassed 139 yards including a 56-yard score “in typical fashion, just breaking tackles, running through tackles,” Todd Wilkerson says, the hindrance with Konerding’s movement seemed to compound.

Coaches figured it was the knee. Konerding didn’t say a word. He struggled against Southridge and Wilkerson noticed he wasn’t cutting well. By the following week, it finally became known that he’d sprained his ankle against Gibson Southern the last Friday in September.

“He’s one of those guys that, if he’s in pain, he plays through it. He doesn’t say anything. But watching film from last year, you can tell a big difference. You can tell he’s playing through pain,” Todd Wilkerson says. “But I think that’s important for our team because we’ve had so many injuries. And he’s shown that leadership, to be on the field every week no matter what.”

Konerding, whose 63 tackles are best among area teams, makes all of the on-field calls for the Patriot defense. On the offensive side, his presence serves more as “a comfort factor,” coach Wilkerson explains.

If the team needs 3 yards, hand it off to Konerding. He’ll most likely get it. Because it’s rather difficult — and frightening — to try to derail a guy who benches 285 pounds and could squat 425 before the knee problem arose.

His favorite part of the season has been watching teammates unfailingly pick each other up “and we’re ready to go for the next day,” Konerding says. “Even with the guys going out, next guy steps in and he feels just as much a part of the team as the last guy was. As long as we’re acting as a team, we’re doing a lot better.”

With just more than a week remaining before Heritage Hills’ sectional tilt with Evansville Memorial, the aim is to have Konerding primed to resume tailbacking duties, which likely means another week of solely playing defense on Friday against South Spencer.

Carrying on, soldiering forward. Yet Konerding is quick to point out that on a team blighted by injuries, the resolve of one cog simply can’t overshadow that of the whole.

“I don’t want to put it all on me, because it’s definitely not all me. It’s a lot of other guys, too. A lot of other seniors and guys (have stepped) up in practice and (have) just (been) leaders,” Konerding says.

“It’s always just a different person.”

Anybody but himself.

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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