Years of anticipation came to fruition on Friday night at East Ridge High School as the newest school in District 833 hosted the former lone public institution in Woodbury in the opening night of football at The Raptors' Nest.
The 34-7 final in favor of the visiting Royals will loom large in this season's record-books, but matters of more-lasting significance had much less to do with what appeared on the scoreboard.
Under sunny skies and amidst an electric atmosphere that saw nearly every high school sports fan in south Washington County descend upon ERHS, the Raptors kicked off their program in earnest in front of a standing-room only crowd estimated at over 5,000 spectators clad in black and gold, as well as blue and white. The stadium's seating capacity is listed at 3,500.
"It was a great night for the community," Raptors coach Ray Betton said.
It looked for a while like it might be an other-worldly night for the Raptors, who managed to hang with visiting Woodbury for a half before the Royals pulled away in the final 24 minutes.
"I'm very proud of our guys," Betton said. "I can go home and sleep well tonight."
Betton may have a nightmare or two concerning how the game began as Woodbury's Profit Idowu returned the very first kickoff in Raptors' history 89 yards for a touchdown to put the Royals up 7-0 on the extra point just 15 seconds into the game.
"It was the same thing that happened to me seven years ago in my first game as head coach at Simley," said Betton, who coached the Warriors before his hiring at East Ridge. "Richfield returned the kick back then, and Woodbury did tonight."
However, the Raptors promptly returned serve as tailback Ezekiel Okeleye scooted 76 yards just a few plays into East Ridge's first possession to score his team's first-ever touchdown and even the score 7-all.
Suddenly, Woodbury found itself in a tie game just minutes into the contest.
"East Ridge has put together a solid team," Royals coach Beau LaBore said. "We knew it was going to be a fight."
What looked like it could suddenly be a shootout, instead turned into a defensive quagmire as neither team managed another score before the half. Woodbury's vaunted running attack in particular appeared out-of-sort in the face of a spirited Raptors defense spurred on by a vocal home audience.
"We made some mistakes in the first half," LaBore said. "We made some bad reads, missed blocks, missed tackles, fumbled the ball..."
Yet, instead of blaming opening-night jitters, the WHS coach pointed out that the Royals -- who lost only twice last season, both to Cretin-Derham Hall, entered 2009 with 19 new starters.
"We need to get better and we know that," LaBore said. "But, we also knew that they'd come out giving us everything they had."
However, the Raptors full-court press waned in the second half as the Royals seized control of the contest early.
After stuffing the Raptors deep in their end on the opening kickoff, Woodbury regained possession after a quick three-and-out from the East Ridge offense.
The Royals promptly took the lead as Idowu and LaMonte Edwards teamed up to punch the ball down the field in just a handful of plays before the latter stretched himself over the endzone to give the visitors the lead for good just over three minutes into the third quarter.
Leading 14-7, Woodbury recovered a fumble on the East Ridge seven-yard-line on the ensuing possession and needed just one run by Anthony Osifuye to score and go up 21-7.
Control of the game firmly in their grasp, the Royals squelched any further Raptors attack as Edwards ran in two more touchdowns of 28 and 5 yards, respectively, to wrap up the evenings scoring with Woodbury traveling the short distance back to their school with a 27-point victory.
In the aftermath, Okeleye immediately became his team's all-time leading rusher with a number that could actually stand for a while -- 192 yards rushing on 19 carries.
Woodbury statistics were not immediately available.
"The Game" now in the books, both coaches looked to the future of their programs, this season and beyond.
LaBore, who's Royals host the now "other" District 833 rival -- Park -- next Friday, said his squad needs to "take care of our end."
"We've got a lot of improvement possible," he said. "We need to make it happen."
Improvement was a common theme post-game as Betton also spoke of what will be his club's continued development.
"The mistakes we made, we can shore up," he said. "We made it a game for a half. The guys did great tonight, they played all 48 minutes -- they'll continue to gain experience each game and grow together."
East Ridge travels down Highway 61 to face Hastings next Friday night.