By Nate Thompson
That’s the only way to explain how an Oakridge squad, supposedly depleted by heavy losses due to graduation, was able to soundly defeat host Belding last Friday, a squad that returned 14 starters from a state playoff qualifier last season.
The popular belief was that powerful senior running back Leroy Quinn was all the Eagles had left this season. Nobody was talking about sophomore Corey Vanderputte, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 169 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Vanderputte’s impressive debut, combined with Quinn’s 103 yards against Belding, demonstrated that the Eagles still have more than one weapon in the backfield, and opponents that key completely on Quinn are likely to get burned.
Oakridge Coach Cary Harger, whose team will host Shelby on Friday night in a West Michigan Conference opener, said he was not among those who were surprised by last week’s positive outcome.
“I wasn’t overly concerned because through the first few weeks of practice, I felt pretty good about where we were at,” Harger said. “I know it’s a long season and a lot of things can happen and there’s going to be mistakes, so I tried to keep an open mind. You have to keep the mindset that it’s the next person up. You’ve got to battle it out for that open spot.”
Harger said he had a strong inkling that Vanderputte would help offset some of the key losses the Eagles experienced at offensive positions, including quarterback Koleman Wall, slot Jaxon Fri and running back Blake Masterman.
“We’ve noticed him throughout his middle school and freshman years, and as a freshman last year, he was pulled up for the playoffs,” Harger said. “Then in the Belding game in the playoffs, we put him in. We were just trying to spread the ball around, but on his first touch, he goes 44 yards for a touchdown. He’s got good speed and good strength for his size.”
Vanderputte said he believes this year’s players entered the season with a chip on their shoulders, knowing they were replacing five players who had three years of varsity experience.
“We just wanted to come out and show people what we can do,” he said. “There may be some people out there thinking we’re not as good as in past seasons, or that we’re just going to have an average season. We want to prove everybody wrong.”
Motivated to make an impact as a sophomore, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Vanderputte said he was one of several Eagles who had perfect attendance at summer workouts.
He said he’s also been trying to follow the lead of Quinn, one of the top running backs in West Michigan, who rushed for 1,777 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, and also recorded 54 tackles at linebacker.
Against Belding, Quinn and Vanderputte found good holes running behind a revamped offensive line, led by senior tackle Nate Fair.
“He’s an amazing player,” Vanderputte said of Quinn. “He’s been training harder than anybody. He’s always in the weight room and working at getting himself better. He’s just trying to make the team better.
“He took me under his wing,” he added. “He’s been able to teach me some things.”
Quinn said it’s nice to have another quality runner in the backfield sharing the load, something he’s always enjoyed at Oakridge.
“He’s been putting up huge numbers on JV, and I knew he was going to be one of the key guys,” Quinn said about Vanderputte. “So I’m just excited that he’s up because he is going to be a good player.
“Doing what he did last week, now they have to worry about two of us. Kind of like me and Blake Masterman or me and Jalen Hughes. So it takes a lot of pressure off me.
Quinn and Vanderputte provide much different running styles, with Quinn being more of a downhill, power between-the-tackles back, while Vanderputte tries to mimic the style of one of his favorite players, Le’Veon Bell.
“I try to run a lot like Le’Veon Bell, and be balanced and elusive,” he said. “I try to be super patient and then explode through the hole.”
Vanderputte isn’t the only underclassmen who will play a big role for the Eagles this fall. Harger said junior Ethen Dailey was solid running the offense in his first game as the starting quarterback. The Eagles will also be counting heavily on junior receiver Jake Danicek in the passing game.
“Ethen has a really good arm and makes good reads,” Vanderputte said. “He was our quarterback on JV last year. And Danicek is just a big-time player.”