Kennedy repeat title bids falls short in 12-7 loss to Heppner
Heading into the final six minutes of the 2019 2A Football State Championship game, the Kennedy Trojans found themselves down by two scores and had been unable to find traction against the Heppner Mustangs' top-ranked defense.
However, with their backs up against the wall, Kennedy turned around and put together their best drive of the game, followed with a near recovery of an onside kick — playing as hard as they could until there was no time left.
The final score: Heppner 12, Kennedy 7.
And while the Trojans failed in their bid to repeat as 2A state champions, the team's grit and determination in the final minutes at Hermiston High School was a microcosm of everything that had made Kennedy a successful football program over the past two seasons.
"It just shows the character of the team and the type of kids these are," head coach Joe Panuke said. " They're going to fight to the very end, they always believe they're going to win, and sometimes you come up a little short. That doesn't mean you're a loser. It just means you've lost that day."
With the state's two best defenses facing each other on the biggest stage, it was no surprise that this year's title game was a contest of which team could hold their ground the longest.
Kennedy (10-2) entered the contest allowing just 141 points throughout the season — a number bested only by Heppner's 98 points allowed.
As fate would have it, the game was also a repeat of the 2015 state championship that the Mustangs won 48-0. Four years later and with a new class of players on each side, this would not be a one-sided affair.
That proved to be nearly enough to shut down the Mustangs (13-0), who scored on the second play of the game but were held largely in check throughout the rest of the contest.
Kennedy's defense clung to a 6-0 deficit throughout the rest of the contest until Heppner was able to string together a nine-play, 67-yard drive in the fourth quarter, culminating in a two-yard run from Jayden Wilson to put JFK down 12-0 with 5:35 left in the game.
Until that point, the Trojans had been unable to put a dent in Heppner's run defense, which allowed just 48 yards on the day. So Kennedy went to the air, leaning on quarterback Dylan Kleinschmit with the game on the line.
The junior signal-caller responded, completing four consecutive passes to open the drive from the Trojans' 27-yard line, marching into Heppner territory. After completing just three passes throughout the game, Kleinschmit was 8-of-11 for 72 yards on the drive, culminating to a 13-yard touchdown pass to David Reyes in the back left corner of the end zone to pull the Trojans to within 12-7 with 43 seconds left in the contest.
With just one timeout left, the Trojans needed to recover an onside kick to get an opportunity to win the game. Senior Bruce Beyer kicked the ball perfectly, sending it bouncing over the Mustang front line and into a mad scramble on the Trojan sideline. The ball was batted in the air between Heppner and Kennedy players before coming to rest on the bottom of a pile of players.
Heppner was able to hang on to possession and kneeled out the clock to end the game.
"Hats off to Heppner, they played hard, they played physical," Panuke said. "I thought we had the onside kick there at the end. It bounced out of our hands a couple of times, and the football gods were on their side tonight."
Prior to the exciting end of the game, the Trojans were able to withstand everything Heppner threw at them. Wilson was able to take advantage of Kennedy's lack of experience against a read-option offense and took the second play of the game 56 yards to the house to make it a 6-0 game.
From there, the Trojans played lock-down defense.
The Mustangs were able to string together several drives but were ultimately driven back by Kennedy, which stopped Heppner on fourth down on four of five attempts. The only one they gave up was a fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter that Wilson punched in for his second touchdown of the game to go up 12-0.
Kennedy's defense nearly turned the tide at the end of the opening half. With Wilson guiding the Mustangs into scoring position in the final seconds of the second quarter, junior Isaiah Basargin picked off a pass on the seven-yard line. Basargin avoided the tackle from intended receiver Jace Coe as time expired, raced up the left sideline, cut across midfield to the right side and nearly reached the end zone before being tackled by Jackson Lehman at the 13-yard line for an 80-yard interception return.
"That would have been awesome if Isaiah could have run that back," Panuke said. "He was bummed, but hey, that's a big play, stopped them there at the end of the half to not get it."
The Trojans held Wilson to just 79 passing yards and 84 rushing yards, but with points and yards at a premium, he was named Heppner's Player of the Game.
Kleinschmit likewise earned the honors for Kennedy behind the strength of his fourth-quarter drive. The junior finished the game going 11-of-23 for 114 yards and a touchdown. Basargin was the team's leading receiver with 59 yards on five catches, four of which came on the final drive.
Reyes added 39 rushing yards and two catches for 12 yards and one touchdown.
And while the Trojans fell short of their ultimate goal, the team continues to raise the bar for itself each season. After winning their first state championship in program history in 2018, this year's class of players will go down as the only Kennedy football team to make back-to-back title appearances.
"It's like I told the kids, just because you lose in the state championship game doesn't mean it's a bad season," Panuke said. "We have a lot of good football players. Kennedy football isn't going anywhere."
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