When Erick Stranko was a freshman at Westminster High School, then-Owls football coach Matt Study pulled him up to the varsity squad to play receiver and running back.
Stranko said the Owls needed a running back because the team’s current backs were injured at the time. He got his first varsity experience against Manchester Valley on Sept. 22, 2017, and notched six carries for 78 yards as the Owls won 50-7.
Stranko remained at running back from that point, and has started to come into his own in his junior season.
“It’s just getting constant reps through practice,” Stranko said. “I’ve been with the line for a while, the sophomore linemen worked with me when I was a freshman and knowing what they’re going to do is really helpful. Coach [Chris] Bassler has really helped me this year to grow into a player as well.”
The Owls (3-2) shut out Manchester Valley 40-0 at Ruby Field on Friday, and Stranko picked up 86 yards on the ground, including a 41-yard touchdown run. Stranko added 10 yards receiving in the victory.
Teammates Ben Flowers and Nate Mattingly also found the end zone against the Mavericks, and Stranko praised the team’s collective effort.
“I’ve been playing for a really long time and played both ways on offense and defense as a kid and it’s just getting those reps,” Stranko said. “Nate comes in for me and does a great job, Ben comes in and does a great job, so it’s not just me doing it all. It’s our coaches and players helping me out.”
Bassler, who became Owls coach this spring, said Stranko was nursing an injury through the first few games, but he quickly became the team’s go-to athlete on the ground when he recovered.
The Owls suffered losses to South River and Linganore to start the season, but beat South Carroll 31-13 in Week 3. Stranko scored twice against the Cavaliers with runs of 3 and 31 yards, and took a similar mindset into the Owls’ Week 4 matchup against Glenelg.
Stranko scored four touchdowns and accumulated 186 rushing yards to help the Owls come from behind and defeat the Gladiators 36-29. Stranko also had 10.5 tackles in Westminster’s Week 5 win.
“It’s nice to have him at full speed,” Bassler said. “The thing I respect the most about Erick is he’s one of those players that plays 100% every snap, whether it’s running the ball or playing on defense.
“When you get a talented kid who plays with maximum effort, you usually get good results.”
Stranko said he started playing football when he was 4 years old, and he got his first experience at receiver. He played receiver for Westminster’s junior varsity program before being brought up to varsity, but played behind former first-team all-county running back Jaden Louis for two seasons.
Stranko has emerged as a dynamic two-way player for the Owls this fall, and is also one of the team’s tackles leaders at linebacker.
“They just play a different brand of football,” Stranko said about his team. “It’s physical, hard-nosed football and we win a lot of games — that’s really fun.”
Bassler said Stranko is “universally respected” as a three-year varsity member and his style of play, that “physical” brand of football, is what the program strives to find in its athletes.
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“When he makes a big run or a big tackle, it kind of gets everyone going,” Bassler said. “That’s one of the ways he has really demonstrated great leadership. Anybody can talk, but it’s the guys that go out and do something on Friday nights that really lead the way, and so far he’s been one of those guys.”