Stonewall Jackson head football coach Kyle Kokkonen said recently that players with Austin Ritchie’s athleticism and versatility are necessary for the Generals, who often rely on such players to fill multiple positions and roles. Ritchie has added a leadership component to his skillset this spring to add even more to his value.
“As a senior this year, we’ve seen the biggest difference in Austin,” Kokkonen said last week of the Stonewall senior. “He’s really stepped into a leadership role that is kind of new for him, I think. We’ve always had other leaders and Austin this year definitely stepped up, wanted to take ownership of his position. He helps us a lot physically and athletically, but his mentality this year has been the biggest step forward.”
It’s good timing for Stonewall, which is trying to continue taking steps toward a more competitive brand of football under a new head coach and must do so while contending with the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Few aspects of the 2021 condensed spring high school football season will be normal, but Kokkonen said leaders like Ritchie and others have handled the challenge well and have the Generals on the proper course.
“I think there’s kind of two ways you can handle all of this craziness. It’s easy to kind of bury your head down and kind of have a bad attitude, or you can kind of do what Austin and a bunch of our other guys have done and really take advantage of whatever time they have,” Kokkonen said. “It would’ve been really easy to just kind of bail out and say, ‘Well, we missed out.’ He hasn’t done that and a bunch of other guys haven’t, so that’s been huge. A lot of things we’re trying to do wouldn’t be possible without guys like that.”
Ritchie is conscious of his growth into a leader that Stonewall’s football team can count on, and he said he’s drawn on his own experience to benefit his younger teammates.
“I’m always encouraging them, always asking them if they need a ride to practice, weight rooms,” Ritchie said. “I always tell them to get in the room. If I could do it, I’d go back and I’d start lifting freshman year. I wish I would’ve. But (I tell my teammates to) just get stronger physically and mentally. That’s part of the game.”
Coinciding with his mental growth are the physical strides Ritchie has taken. The senior, who has signed with Division II Shepherd University to play baseball next school year, has become more devoted to weight training and credited that work for allowing him the chance to take his baseball career to the collegiate level.
“I try to be the best player I can be,” Ritchie said. “I’ve been working in the weight room all year. I’ve got to learn every position and be there when they need me. Wherever they put me, I’m ready to play there.”
Ritchie has played multiple positions during his time at Stonewall, seeing time primarily as a running back and quarterback on offense and a cornerback on defense. With junior Jacob Lemon back after starting most of last season at QB, Ritchie has been able to focus more on playing running back, though he said he’s still spending some practice time at quarterback to keep himself familiar with the position in case he’s needed there.
As a sophomore in 2018, Ritchie passed for 263 yards, ran for 211 and accounted for five total touchdowns as Stonewall’s quarterback. In 2019, he rushed for 119 yards, third-best on the team.
Kokkonen said that when he first joined Stonewall’s JV coaching staff out of college, Ritchie was an eighth-grade running back who was small but had the intelligence to allow him to do “a lot of different things” on the football field. Ritchie is built to better handle the load at running back now thanks to his work in the weight room.
“Even though he was a smaller kid, he was really athletic and smart. And now that he has now worked hard enough to have the body that goes along with that, I think he’s set a great sort of ground layer for himself to have this body now and really take advantage of it,” Kokkonen said.
Ritchie’s physical growth might just open the door for more possibilities on the defensive side, as well. Previously a cornerback (he was a second team All-Bull Run District pick in 2019), Ritchie said he’s worked primarily as the safety in Stonewall’s 3-5-3 defense this preseason.
While Kokkonen said the plan is for Ritchie to spend most of the season at safety, he’s been telling the senior that he’s worked hard enough in the weight room that he may have lifted himself into some playing time at linebacker this spring.
“I’m focused on being really aggressive on defense,” Ritchie said, “not too much different from playing corner. Just got to come up a little bit more, make tackles in the middle.”
Ritchie said he has personal goals for his final high school football season, and from a team perspective he wants the Generals to be more competitive and try to top the two wins the squad picked up in 2019.
“I think we’re in a pretty good spot right now,” he said. “We’re getting really conditioned. Our offense is looking good. We’re just excited with the new coach to see what we can do this year.”