O-line additions in tune with Raiders’ nuances

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Southridge linemen Javier Canales (79) and Alex Merkel (56) howled after teammate Aidan Michel scored a touchdown last Friday against Gibson Southern. Canales and Merkel are both first-year starters on Southridge’s offensive line, but the inexperienced unit has learned quickly and cleared space for a rushing attack that averages nearly 300 yards per game. The Raiders hope for continued production in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. EDT Class 2A sectional opener at Tell City, a team Southridge edged 24-21 in September.

Herald Sports Writer

Some days, being an offensive lineman is just not very fun.

Tuesday in Huntingburg was one of those days.

Southridge amassed 228 yards on the ground against Class 3A No. 2 Gibson Southern on Friday, but fell short in a 31-21 loss. That performance, the Raiders’ third-lowest output of the season, didn’t sit well with offensive line coach Steve Winkler, who explained to his line in stunning detail exactly what went wrong while the boys sat in “pop” position — a sort of wall-less wall-sit. Winkler recounted the game’s highs and lows much to the chagrin of his linemen’s burning leg muscles.

“It’s a love-hate relationship with their line coach,” Winkler explained. “Because the bottom line is, if I ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

Although for much of this season, it’s been nothing but hog heaven for the Raider line, which has helped clear the way for more than 2,100 yards and 24 touchdowns for its trio of tailbacks. It’s a cliche that does not need repeating, but football is a game won in the trenches and nobody is more up to or eager for the challenge than the Southridge O-line.

After returning just one starter, Raider coach Scott Buening said there were question marks as to who and how the team would respond to filling some of its most important positions. Ethan Schwoeppe was a given after starting a year ago. The senior anchors the right side of the line along with classmate Alex Merkel. It’s been that way since sixth grade; the two lined up next to one another, plowing the lane for Alex Householder. Logan Sollman earned a starting spot after “working himself into varsity strength and quickness,” according to Winkler. Juniors Javier Canales and Bryce Harter make up the left side and senior Andy Fischer works in at either guard.

After Schwoeppe, who comes in at a bullish 6-foot and 291 pounds — and can “squat cows,” Merkel joked — none of the linemen tops 240. It’s a group, though, that has made do with its quickness and strength.

“A lot of people told us we weren’t going to be big enough, strong enough, and we pretty well made up for that with our speed,” Sollman said. “We’re a very fast line. One of the fastest to go through here, if I had to guess.”

That quickness is something Winkler said Buening has emphasized since the offseason when the line worked on foot speed and explosion with more agility drills. It’s a vital aspect to an intricate offense that requires lineman to master the nuances of pulls and kick-outs as much as straight-ahead, man-to-man blocking.

“We’ve had a lot of guys that are really strong that didn’t play,” Winkler said. “You’ve got to be a player. You’ve got to be able to get off the ball. You’ve got to be able to move.

“It’s not always ”˜just go straight ahead’ with our offense. We have to know our angles and block, and some of the subtleties are you have to know your opponent and how quick they are. ... Which shoulder can I block this guy with? Are you just going to try and cut him off or get your head up front? Or block with the other shoulder to keep him from penetrating in?”

But for all the talk of footwork and intricacies in blocking schemes, the key to the offense is relatively simple to Merkel and company.

“Hand the ball to Aidan or House and just let us go and do our thing,” Merkel said.

It’s a fantastic relationship between the offensive line and its running backs, and there is always more than enough love and razzing to go around.

Craig, for instance, according to Merkel has a “Barry Sanders-like” ability to get in and out of cuts, but all that juking? Not cool, Connor.

“I mean, he just runs away from people,” Sollman said incredulously.

“Eighty-yard touchdowns are nice, but sometimes I get mad at Connor whenever he runs 80 yards because that just means I have to run 80 yards and go snap the ball again,” he added.
Fullback Aidan Michel gets the Raider line stamp of approval for his willingness to find defenders to run toward.

“Aidan’s kind of like us,” Schwoeppe said. “He’d rather run somebody over than juke around them.
“We like to hang out with people like Aidan, even if he’s a fullback and a huge sissy because he’s not big enough or tough enough to play line,” Merkel joked.

But it’s all out of respect and in the end, no one on the offense minds the jabs as long as the chains are moving and the scoreboard is adding points.

“When our running backs come up to us and say, ”˜Nice block’ ... they just don’t celebrate their touchdowns, they come to us and say, ”˜That’s how you do it. Thanks.’ They appreciate all the work we put in for them and as long as we put the ball in the end zone and win games, that’s all I care about,” Merkel said.

Next up, the Raiders (7-2) travel to Tell City (6-3) in their Class 2A sectional opener at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Friday; Southridge held on to beat the Marksmen 24-21 in September. Quarterback Luke Stetter tossed two touchdowns, but the running game was held to its second-lowest total of the season. This time, Winkler made sure his line will be mentally prepared, running it through the vaunted “Tell City drill,” an up-and-down exercise with the seven-man sled that leaves his linemen gasping for air.

It’s a war of attrition on the offensive line, and the Raider unit is more than ready for its next campaign.

“In my opinion, we have not played our best yet,” Merkel said. “We have not played anywhere near what we’re capable of. The only time we’ve come close is from three minutes left in the third quarter (against) Jasper to about the end of the game. That’s when we’ve played the best football so far ... and if we put that in for four quarters, then we’re going to be pretty dang hard to beat.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com

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