Pinpointing an explanation as to how Highland weakside linebacker Ethan Gerding posted unfathomable statistics in his first two career starts is an enigma even to third-year coach Mike Gibbons.
Gibbons is extremely qualified to provide an answer as a 2001 Division III first-team All-Ohio linebacker at Mentor Lake Catholic and 2005 D-III first-team All-American at Mount Union. He initially chuckled Thursday before practice, readily admitting he was unsure in the summer whether one of the program’s 2016 junior varsity stars would even start.
But All-Suburban League American Conference middle linebacker Max Beier had a blunt answer.
“He’s a monster,” Beier said. “That kid’s all over the place.”
Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds — including curly hair he’s still closer to 5-8 — Gerding turned heads in Week 1 with 17 tackles, 3ﾽ tackles for loss and 1ﾽ sacks in a 28-14 victory over Brunswick. A fantastic game no doubt, but once-in-a-lifetime for 99.9 percent of players and most likely a fluke.
The encore? Try 19 more tackles, 3ﾽ more tackles for loss, two more sacks and forced fumbles recovered by Beier and safety Jake Tecco in a historic 35-0 pasting of Medina (He also threw key lead blocks on Beier’s short touchdown run and Jake Rogers’ 53-yard punt return for a score).
That’s two games, 36 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 3ﾽ sacks and two forced fumbles. No one else in Medina County has more than 21, five, three and one.
No Highland player has posted more tackles in consecutive games since Tyler Phillips had 41 against Revere and Green in 2009. No Highland player has posted more tackles for loss in consecutive games since Tyler Houska had 9ﾽ against Tallmadge and Cloverleaf in 2006. Both were All-Ohioans.
That’s quite the company.
“In the two games that he’s had, obviously the production has been amazing,” Gibbons said. “It’s his senior year and it’s his time. He’s making the most of it.”
As can be the beauty of high school football, Gerding isn’t physically imposing like the 6-4, 234-pound Houska or 6-2, 225-pound Phillips, but he worked hard to buff up his already strong upper half that made him the SL American champion in the shot put last spring. Gerding is particularly proud of a team-best 275-pound hang clean, but he never lets that get in the way of maintaining honor-roll status while taking advanced placement classes and dedicating time to two church groups.
Lifting aggressively only helps so much, however, as Gerding’s football journey humbled him and taught him to savor every moment of his last go-around in his black and green No. 35 jersey.
For two years, Gerding was content flying 100 mph on a JV team that called itself the “Java Dogs” with friends Jacob Hotes and Nolan Kinsey, classmates with similar stories of waiting for their varsity moments. Gerding then worked up to special teams while backing up two-year starter Michael Oriti last season, compiling 14 tackles for the year and snaring a 21-yard pick-six in a 48-0 win over Revere.
Already hungry as a senior first-year starter, Gerding was devastated to learn Hotes and Kinsey would not play this season due to medical reasons. Perspective hit home hard.
The mental edge was etched into Gerding’s brain: Ball out. No regrets. There may not be a tomorrow.
“When I play, I play a lot through adrenaline,” he said. “If you come watch me play in practice, I make good plays, but I’m not flying around like I do Friday night. I attribute a lot of that to that feeling you get when you walk on to the field.
“The other thing is we’ve had a lot of kids go down. Some kids can’t play anymore, so when that happens, I put them on my shoulders. I feel like I have to play for them, too.”
Gerding knows maintaining an 18-tackle pace is impossible, and he pointed out there’s plenty of credit to go around. Highland preaches that linemen build a “wall” at the line of scrimmage, giving linebackers Gerding, Beier and Johnny Dipaolo room to operate. The Hornets also have blitzed more frequently.
Where Gerding excels is reading the offense and constantly attacking toward the backfield. Combine the proactive approach with intensity, acceleration, strength and quick hands — a must for shedding blocks — and Gerding has no doubt been a surprise for a team loaded with returning starters.
He’s simply taking everything in stride as the Hornets defense looks to continue its fast start tonight against neighboring North Royalton.
“We just like to fly around. We hit people,” he said. “Our team historically has been a smaller team in the league against other teams that we play. A lot of kids get satisfaction coming out and showing people just because we’re not the tallest kids doesn’t mean we don’t hit hard.
“We like to come out and stick it to ’em.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.