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East Ridge’s Sid Thomes (14) grew a couple of inches since starting last season as a freshman and continued to develop his game with a steady diet of summer ball. Photo by David Joles • djoles@startribune.com

The East Ridge boys' basketball team is growing, both literally and as a budding Suburban East Conference program.

"Growing up both physically and mentally," coach Paul Virgin said.

While the previous few seasons served as challenging and pivotal, Virgin still has to slap himself from time to time.

"I try to remind myself that four years ago, there wasn't even a program here," he said. "So there's that."

Just like the program, this year's playing crop is still really young. Conrad Sexe is the only senior getting significant minutes.

"We're still learning what it takes to close out a game and to win a tough game," Virgin added. "Overall, they're progressing quite well."

A 6-1 start to the season is evidence of progress at East Ridge.

The Raptors lost leading scorer Justin Pahl, who is now playing for St. Olaf, but they seem to be filling out the lineup and sharing the load quite nicely.

Sid Thomes started last year as a ninth-grader. He grew a couple of inches and had a great summer of basketball to continue his development on the floor.

Jake Knupp saw more playing time as the season went on in 2011-2012. The junior now serves as a captain and the point guard. He's bumped up to 5-10 and gained strength. Knupp also added some toughness after playing cornerback for the Raptors football team this past fall.

"It will help him deal with the physicality that you have to play with in the Suburban East," Virgin said.

Thomes and Knupp make up a solid -- and now more experienced -- backcourt to guide the Raptors. Thomes averages 14 points per game while Knupp averages 12.3 points.

"They're really coming into their own," Virgin said.

Brian Ishola earned a lot of minutes last year as a sophomore. The small forward is back and is averaging 13.2 points. Sexe, at 6-8, worked on his strength and finishing and it's showed on the glass. Sexe grabbed 18 rebounds against White Bear Lake and another 14 against Woodbury. When he's on -- he is averaging 11.8 points -- he'll put up a double-double.

Ryan Keenan, the son of Harding coach Dean Keenan, stands at 6-9. He comes off the bench and can score in double figures with a few rebounds and blocks.

Ryan Mathis, a 6-5 junior, missed time as a ninth- and 10th-grader but would have seen lots of varsity time before suffering injuries and illnesses.

"He's kind of the one that everybody's forgotten about," Virgin said of Mathis. "Now he's starting for us and he's really coming on."

Roseville is the favorite to win the Suburban East. East Ridge hopes to put up a fight and battle with Stillwater, Woodbury, White Bear Lake and Cretin-Derham Hall to try and keep pace.

Fortunately for the Raptors, they haven't peaked yet.

"They haven't been in a lot of big games. Not in a lot of big games that are on the line," Virgin said. "We need to get better at closing out. And I think we are. I think we are getting better at that."

More, importantly, the program is starting to take shape.

"We're developing our own identity," Virgin said. "We're coming into our own in terms of what we have for our basketball family. Alumni are coming back and working with the team over winter break and during open gyms. It's nice to now finally feel like we've established a program and a basketball family."

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