Valley head coach Gary Swenson during football practice at the Valley High School Stadium in West Des Moines on Thursday afternoon August 14, 2014.
The latest product off Valley’s made-for-Division-I assembly line is starting to look like he belongs in a higher league.
John Raridon is 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds now. He no longer has a face that looks as if it fits in the junior high hallways, and he bench-presses more than 300 pounds, which is terrifying news for the high school defensive linemen who couldn’t handle the smaller, less stout version they encountered a year ago.
Here’s the news high school opponents really don’t want to hear: Raridon still has another year after this one.
To this point, though, he’s on a career path that no other Valley lineman has traveled during coach Gary Swenson’s 20 years at the school, which is quite a feat in itself.
The Tigers have produced nearly a dozen Division I linemen since Swenson arrived and a couple went on to careers in the NFL, but none of them started as a freshman and then produced an all-state sophomore season.
“I would have trouble coming up with a name of somebody who was better at this point than him,” Swenson said. “I think he’s way ahead of what you would expect out of a high school player.”
This is comforting for Swenson, the winner of Valley’s first-year quarterback derby and the running backs aiming to fill in the 2,099-yard crater left by all-state tailback Tyus Mason’s graduation.
“Whenever I see (Raridon), I get right behind him and follow him,” senior running back Drew Gray said. “He’ll lead me where I need to go.”
Although the Tigers aren’t blessed with an abundance of varsity-proven talents, they have center Brady Smith returning next to Raridon, big-play threat Dominque Dafney back at wide receiver and a pair of running backs — Gray and Trevor Bell — who demonstrated an ability to pick up tough yards last season.
Questions remain elsewhere on offense and up front on defense, though. Swenson said the quarterback battle between sophomore Rocky Lombardi and senior Will Lounsbury could spill into the regular season, and solidifying both the offensive and defensive lines remains a top priority, particularly with perhaps the state’s most daunting four-game set to open the season.
Valley kicks off the season against Waukee, Iowa City West, Southeast Polk and defending state champion Dowling Catholic, four teams that collectively posted a 40-8 record last season.
“If you’re not good up front on both sides of the ball, you’ll have trouble beating good teams,” said Swenson, whose team started 2-2 last year before reeling off eight straight victories on its way to the Class 4-A semifinals. “Hopefully, we can make some fast progress.”
Raridon can ease some of that pressure on the offensive side, especially if he continues his career trajectory.
Proof of his meteoric rise is apparent on the practice field, in the weight room and in the contact list on his phone. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini are five of the college head coaches who have already offered him a scholarship.
“For a big guy, he’s athletic and aggressive,” Swenson said. “In high school football, sometimes the big guys haven’t grown up having to be aggressive. … I think John, by nature, is that type of player.”
Raridon said he picked up his assertiveness in third grade when he skipped flag football for a tackle league and grew fond of knocking opponents around.
Perhaps some of it comes, too, from his genetics. His father, Scott, played at Nebraska. His older brothers, Scott Jr. and Sam, were all-state picks who signed with Notre Dame and Wisconsin, respectively.
John’s background helped him survive his freshman year when Swenson brought him up to the varsity out of necessity.
Raridon weighed 210 pounds and benched 195 then. He had to learn how to play against bigger and stronger opponents.
“I’d go against the scout team and it would be a struggle to move them two or three yards off the ball,” he said. “Now it’s pretty easy to move people off the ball.”
2014 VALLEY SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 at Waukee, 7
Sept. 5 vs. Iowa City West, 7:30
Sept. 12 at Southeast Polk, 7:30
Sept. 19 vs. W.D.M. Dowling Catholic, 7:30
Sept. 26 at D.M. Hoover, 7:30
Oct. 3 at Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln, 7
Oct. 10 vs. Sioux City West, 7
Oct. 17 at Ankeny Centennial, 7
Oct. 24 vs. D.M. Lincoln, 7:30