Gunner Vanderbilt put in the time in the offseason and it is paying off in a big way for Connell this year.
The senior running back/linebacker has more than 1,000 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns for an Eagles team that is undefeated in SCAC East league play and tied with River View for first. Connell hosts arch-rival Royal at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Vanderbilt said of taking over as the No. 1 running back this season. “I felt confident enough. I felt that I worked hard enough that I’d be better than in the past year. I was pretty excited.”
Being a running back in Connell means you always have big shoes to fill, considering Matt Hadley — one of the greatest running backs the state has ever seen — competed there.
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But Vanderbilt has done his part this season, leading the Eagles to four consecutive wins after opening the season with back-to-back losses.
Vanderbilt split time in the backfield a year ago with Braiden Whitby and others, but took over full time this season.
“He is having a monster year because that is the one thing we can do well right now — run the ball,” Connell coach Wayne Riner said. “He has three guys on the line with three years experience in front of him.”
Vanderbilt started as a running back in junior high and said the work of assistant coach Scott Forsyth has been key in his development. The Eagles like to run the ball and Vanderbilt has taken advantage of the big guys up front, including Greg Heinen, Mack Hopkins and Kelton Syrie, as well as tight end Korbin Merrill.
“I’d like to thank my line and all my friends that block for me,” Vanderbilt said. “I play for my friends and my family and my coaches. I think that has a lot to do with it. They work hard and I work hard, and as a team we make things work.”
Now, the Eagles are hoping they are clicking at the right time.
They host the Knights, who were ranked near the top of the state all season before suffering losses to Zillah and River View.
Royal lost a lot off of last season’s state finalist team, but has been steady throughout the season and the Eagles expect a tight game.
“Anytime Royal and Connell play, it is a big game,” Riner said. “They are the big programs over the last 10 years. It’s been solid.”
The game is especially big this season because only the top three teams advance to the playoffs. The winner will have the inside track to at least the No. 2 seed, while the No. 3 seed will play Zillah — a team which beat Royal 45-14 earlier this season.
“We are feeling pretty confident,” Vanderbilt said. “Our passing game was good (vs. Warden last week) and we are working on all four cylinders now. It should be a pretty good game.”