The Sheridan football team made quite an entrance this season in its move down to the 2A Classification, putting up one of its best seasons in program history by winning the Tri-River Conference and heading into the state playoffs ranked No. 2 in the state.
But the Kennedy Trojans had little qualms about showing how sharply the tables can turn come playoff time by handing the Spartans their biggest loss of the season in a 27-6 victory in the quarterfinals of the 2A state playoffs.
"It felt great, especially since they were league champs," Kennedy senior Nick Suing said. "It felt good to get a little revenge on them and show them what the Tri-River is really about at the 2A level."
It was a marked turnaround from the first month of the season in which the Spartans handily beat the Trojans 44-7 at Sheridan High School. Since then, Kennedy has been nearly untouchable, reeling off six straight victories, including back-to-back road wins against league champions to forge their way back to the semifinals after back-to-back trips to the final four in 2015 and 2016.
"That game was about six or seven weeks ago and we pride ourselves in getting better every single week," Kennedy head coach Joe Panuke said. "The guys believe in each other, work hard and trust in their coaches and the guy next to them to execute, and we're going to get things done."
The Trojans' win was a continuation of the team's incredible defensive turnaround over the past two months. After Kennedy's loss to Sheridan — the second consecutive game giving up 44 points — the Trojans have surrendered just 40 points combined in their last six games.
Kennedy held the Spartans to just 79 yards of offense and a season-low six points while picking off all-conference quarterback Jacob DeBoff three times.
"Our defensive coaching staff works their butt off," Panuke said. "They study a ton of film and they come up with a great plan every week and our guys did a great job executing it. It just came down to tackling well and being physical and not giving up big plays."
After the two teams opened the game trading scoreless drives, the Trojans landed the first punch when senior Bryce Vandervort took a run play around the right side of the field 14 yards to the end zone to put Kennedy up 7-0.
After holding Sheridan to three-and-out on the next drive, Kennedy drove 85 yards down the field — including an 18-yard gain on a fourth down punt fake by Emorej Lynk — to score on a one-yard dive by Lynk to take a two-score lead.
Kennedy's defense continued to hold strong, but the Spartans caught a break after intercepting a pass from quarterback Angel Dela Dela Rosa, setting Sheridan up close to their end zone. Three plays later, DeBoff connected with teammate Chris Savoldi to pull the Spartans to within 13-6.
But the Trojans were quick to answer back, responding with a 13-play drive largely on the back of its running back duo of Lynk and Vandervort to set up a one-yard touchdown by Lynk to make it a 20-6 game heading into halftime.
The Trojan Show continued in the third quarter when Kennedy recovered their opening kickoff attempt, leading to a quick score by Dela Rosa to go up 27-6.
Sheridan had one last counter to mount, taking the ensuing kickoff to midfield and moving down to within 10 yards of their goal line. But the Kennedy defense held strong, stopping three consecutive run plays before sophomore Dylan Kleinschmit intercepted a desperation pass on fourth down in the end zone to end the scoring threat.
The Trojans took over possession at the 20-yard line and steadily ground out yards over the remainder of the third quarter. Although Kennedy was unable to score for the rest of the game, the team was able to keep Sheridan firmly pinned in their own territory and neutralize any further offense from the Spartans.
Lynk led the team with an impressive load, carrying the ball 39 times for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Vandervort added 48 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries as the team piled up 227 yards on the ground.
"We were ready to go on the line, firing off and working hard in practice," Suing said. "We knew get-offs were important, and technique, technique, technique. It felt like we executed really well."
With the run plays continuing to bait the Sheridan defense close to the line, Dela Rosa was able to make key connections through the air, finishing 5-of-8 for 100 yards, including a pair of big passes to Rocco Carley, who finished with a team-high 51 yards.
"They're an aggressive, physical team," Panuke said. "They like to get downhill on us and we knew coming in that if we had success running the ball, we'd have some play action stuff off of that that we felt we could really hurt them with."
Kennedy (9-2) now turns its attention to the semifinals, where they will face the No. 11 Lost River Pirates (7-3), who likewise has won back-to-back playoff upsets to come within one game of the state championship.
Kickoff for the two teams is scheduled for noon on Saturday at Summit High School in Bend.