A part of Cedar Ridge’s future, a soon-to-be graduate, and a name commonly seen across Cedar Ridge circles for postseason football awards are this year’s honorees for All-Big 8 Conference first-team for the Red Wolves.

Freshman wide receiver Mitchell Bonner, linebacker/wide receiver Jake Mergenthal and defensive end/guard James Larisa were named first-team All-Big 8 Conference last week.

Center and defensive tackle Michael Nicholson and defensive lineman Javon McKiver were named honorable mention All-Conference.

This season, Bonner started as a freshman for first-year head coach Corey Lea. Running out of a spread offense operated by quarterback Elijah Whitaker, Booner made several big plays throughout the six-game season for the Red Wolves on both sides of the ball. His playmaking ability garnered him the nickname “Mitchell Baller” from teammates and staff.

“Mitchell really stepped up as a freshman,” Lea said. “Led the team in kickoff returns, 2nd in tackles, and 3rd in receiving yards. He is going to be big for us next season.”

Mergenthal has been one of the names most synonymous with Cedar Ridge athletics over the past five years. Jake’s brother, Braxton, played football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse with the Red Wolves. During Braxton’s middle school years, he and Jake lived in Dusseldorf, Germany when their mother got promoted to project manager with Bayer-Crop Science, which develops crop safety products for farmers.

It led them away from Efland and into a whole new world. Braxton Mergenthal now plays college football with Division III Hampton-Sydney in Hampton, VA. In the winter of 2020, Braxton turned down offers from Division II Mars Hill and various Division III schools.

“I really proud of Jake,” Lea said. “He led the team in tackles and was our quarterback on the defensive side of the ball.”

Jake also played wide receiver when Whitaker needed a big option near the sidelines.

Larisa was possibly the most consistent player on Cedar Ridge’s defensive line. A constant threat on the pass rush, Larisa had an impressive outing against Vance County to conclude the season.

“James was a matchup nightmare at defensive end,” Lea said. “His speed really made a difference in making some big plays on defense.”

Cedar Ridge lost its starting quarterback during the first quarter of its season-opener against Northwood. Whitaker, who figured to alternate between running back and wide receiver, was forced to resume duties at quarterback, where he remained for the rest of the six-game season.

Among Whitaker’s most reliable protectors was Nicholson, a sophomore listed as 6-feet tall at 280 pounds.

“He was a rock of consistency along the offensive line,” Lea said. “He’s only going to get better.

McKiver turned into a late bloomer as the season went on, particularly defensively.

“He’s a real presence on the defensive line,” Lea said. “He is working hard to get bigger and stronger. Will be a force to be reckoned with next year.”

Cedar Ridge played its best games at the end of last season. In its season-finale, they led Vance County at halftime before the Vipers charged back and held on for a 20-14 win inside Red Wolves Stadium. Since then, Lea has focused on the future, which will include life in a new conference that includes Eastern Alamance, Western Alamance, Walter Williams and Person, as well as traditional Big 8 rivals Orange and Northwood.

“At the end of the season, we wanted to get better and we did,” Lea said after the Vance County game. “Hopefully, the changing climate of the pandemic will allow us to get back to normalcy in the weight room. To solidly create a culture that you have to do to get better. I’m excited about possibilities simply because we only had five seniors that played this season. Realistically, we were a very talented junior varsity team. But we were asking a lot of guys to take varsity reps straight out of middle school.”

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