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Under head football coach Joe Panuke, Mount Angel footballers from fifth grade through high school grow up on the gridiron.

Ahead of the fall football season, the Trojans are preparing for another trip to the championship game. This time though, the 2A state champion runners-up will be moving up to the 3A level to continue playing 11-man football while the 2A teams they leave behind make the switch to 9-man football.

According to Kennedy head football coach Joe Panuke, the decision was one he put to his players and coaching and staff. The groups came back with a unanimous answer.

"I asked my coaching staff and I asked my players and they said we wanted to play 11-man, so it was a pretty quick decision," Panuke said.

PMG PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Kennedy hosted a 5-12 grade football camp to prepare for the upcoming season, drilling skills and honing technique.

The move to 3A will have the Trojans facing off against a handful of new opponents this season. In the Trojans' new Special District, 4A Newport will be playing down a classification, and Kennedy will take on Amity, Scio, Dayton, Jefferson and Santiam Christian. Fellow 2A school Salem Academy will also be playing up in Kennedy's special district.

The team spent the week getting ready across all age levels, as players from fifth grade on up gathered at the Kennedy football field to do drills -- tackling, blocking, catching and beyond.

According to Panuke, the gathering of all levels was more than just drilling the kids so they were on track technically. It was about building a sense of camaraderie.

PMG PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Kennedy head football coach Joe Panuke says the team wanted to move up to 3A to continue competing at 11-man football.

"We like having (the younger kids) up here because they look up to the older guys," Panuke said. "They come and watch the Friday night games and they're like, 'Oh he's so cool and now I'm at camp with them, working on a bag with them, and he's teaching me stuff.' It's just good to have that connection. All of our older guys, our juniors and seniors, remember coming to camp when they were in fifth grade and so-and-so was there … cool to see him and be in the same drills as him."

Going through those same drills with the kids were the Trojans who will populate the varsity roster. Panuke pointed out senior leadership like Luke Beyer, Owen Bruner, Ethan Kleinschmit, Briggs Snell and Matt Hopkins as factors that will help propel the team forward.

Another crucial piece of the Kennedy football puzzle, the quarterback opening left by graduated senior Riley Cantu, is expected to be filled by Elijah Traeger, but Panuke left the position open slightly to see who would step up to fill the slot.

"When Riley got hurt against Heppner, Elijah stepped in," Panuke said. "Elijah is probably going to be our number one but we have a lot of work to do and spots to earn."

Kennedy still has two weeks to go until jamboree action at Santiam Christian, and then on Sept. 2 the team will have its home opener against Stanfield. Last year Stanfield went 4-4 and ended the game on a three-game win streak.

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