The new defending champions
It's been nearly nine months since the Kennedy High School Trojans put the finishing touches on an incredible run to the 2018 2A State Championship game that culminated in a 31-20 victory over the league-rival Santiam Wolverines for the program's first title in school history.
So how do you follow up the best season ever recorded in Mount Angel? According to head coach Joe Panuke, it's all about getting into the right mindset and not expecting to win another state title simply because they're the defending champions.
"You can't go into a season saying 'Hey, we won a state championship, let's go do it again,'" Panuke said. "It's a day-to-day, week-to-week kind of deal."
Last year's Trojans did not enter the season as a projected state finalist, and after losing their first two league games by a combined margin of 88-7, Kennedy seemed an unlikely title contender.
But Panuke knows it's not about where a team starts, it's about where it finishes. After being shut out 44-0 at home against Santiam in the third week of the season, followed by a 44-7 route on the road at Sheridan, the Kennedy coaching staff knew it needed to make some changes in order to compete at the highest level in the 2A classification.
The Trojans tweaked a few positions, put players in new places to succeed, and Kennedy was off to the races, ripping off nine consecutive wins en route to the title.
"We got hot and figured things out at the end of the year in what we did best," Panuke said. "That's our job as coaches, to put people in where they need to succeed and go from there."
Along the way, Kennedy avenged its only two losses of the season, beating Sheridan 27-6 in the state quarterfinals and taking down Santiam in the title game two weeks later.
Perhaps surprisingly, last year's team was relatively young. This year's returning junior class outnumbered last year's juniors and outgoing seniors combined. But the six seniors who graduated — including Oregon State University preferred walk-ons Rocco Carley and Nick Suing — made a significant impact that will be impossible to reproduce.
"You don't replace guys that go on to be Division I guys, but we've got some good football players coming back," Panuke said. "They work hard together, they play well together ... and we've still got some explosive guys."
Among them is running back Emorej Lynk, one of three returning seniors, who continues to rehab an injured knee he suffered in last year's title game. Lynk was named Player of the Game after racking up 205 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in just one half of play and was later named 2A Offensive Player of the Year.
But he was forced to miss the entire basketball season and remains a question mark heading into the 2019 season.
"Whenever he gets cleared to play, if it's the season, it is what it is, but it's week to week," Panuke said.
The Trojans two other returning seniors — Bruce Beyer and Sam GrosJacques — along with a host of battle-tested juniors, are more than capable of picking up the slack.
"We have a big group of juniors," Panuke said. "Most of them have started since they were freshmen, so there's a lot of experience with those guys, and we've got some bright stars with our seniors this year."
The bulk of the team's starting offensive and defensive line is back, and the Trojans boast a number of multi-dimensional skill players, such as David Reyes, Brady Traeger, Isaiah Basargin, Dylan Kleinschmit and Riley Cantu.
Panuke said he has seen good numbers in the weight room over the summer, and the incoming class of freshmen will likely see some playing time on Friday nights this fall.
"They're a good group," Panuke said. "Skill-wise is high, and knowledge-wise, knowing the program, assignments, blocking assignments — we've been really impressed."
The road to the playoffs will not be any easier than last year. Kennedy opens the season in Rainier against the defending 3A State Champion Columbians, and repeats last year's league schedule with Santiam and Sheridan right out of the gates.
"The tough part of the league schedule right off the bat, so we have to be ready to go," Panuke said.
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