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A class above – Kennedy an immediate state power at 3A level

James Day

One of the challenges of this job is explaining things that are difficult to explain. But I am going to give it my best effort.

What the Kennedy High football squad was able to achieve this season was just off the charts. The Trojans finished 12-1, losing only to Cascade Christian of Medford in the Nov. 26 Class 3A title game. Kennedy shut out five opponents and limited four others to just one score in just its first year at the 3A level. When the OSAA decided to switch Class 2A to a
9-man game this fall because of declining roster sizes and safety issues, Kennedy didn’t hesitate. 

The Trojans, a long-time 2A state power under coach Joe Panuke, wanted to continue to play 11-man, which meant moving up to Class 3A. Which meant playing virtually every week against a school with higher enrollment, sometimes 100 or 200 students higher than Kennedy’s OSAA-adjusted total of 115. Only one other 2A school, Salem Academy, chose to join Kennedy and move up to 3A.

“The biggest challenge with stepping up to 3A is the depth of the good teams and the amount of good players they had on their team,” Panuke told Our Town.  “Also, in the playoffs everyone is good. There wasn’t a team that you felt would be an easy win. You had to earn everything and play at a high level each week.”

Kennedy football coach Joe Panuke addresses his squad after a 14-12 quarterfinal win vs. Vale on Nov. 12. The Trojans were 12-1 in their first year at Class 3A. 
Kennedy football coach Joe Panuke addresses his squad after a 14-12 quarterfinal win vs. Vale on Nov. 12. The Trojans were 12-1 in their first year at Class 3A.

The challenges started early. In week two, the Trojans traveled to Florence to take on Siuslaw, the defending 3A champions. The Trojans won 24-0. Two weeks later Kennedy traveled to Dayton to face another state power (seven state titles in nine appearances). After a scoreless first half JFK pulled away for a 21-0 win vs. the Pirates. QB Elijah Traeger threw long TD passes to Owen Bruner and Brett Boen and RB William Schaecher pounded out a 21-yard TD run. After a 47-8 win the following week, Sept. 29, against 3-1 Scio, folks with calendar vision couldn’t help but start looking ahead to Oct. 28, when JFK was scheduled to face another 3A power, Santiam Christian, in a game that looked like it would decide the district title.

Both squads stayed perfect until Oct. 28, with Kennedy at the top of the 3A rankings and Santiam Christian at No. 5. On a misty Senior Night at Randy Traeger Memorial Field the hosts burst out to a 17-0 halftime lead then faced a fierce counterattack from the Eagles. Two Jayden Christy TD runs sandwiched around a TD pass put the visitors ahead 20-17 with 1:12 left.

But it took the Trojans just 27 seconds to snatch back the lead – and the district title. The score came on a brilliant call by Panuke, a perfectly executed 63-yard double-reverse pass from Ethan Kleinschmit to Luke Beyer.

The playoffs were next, with Lakeview falling to the Trojans 43-0 before JFK took hard-fought wins vs. Vale (14-12) and Banks (15-7) to move to 12-0 and reach the final at Cottage Grove High against No. 2 Cascade Christian, also 12-0. But the dream ended there as the Challengers used a spirited goal-line stand followed by a 99-yard drive in the second period to take control of what became a 41-6 Cascade Christian win.

“They were a very good, well-rounded team,” Panuke said.  “They played hard and capitalized on our mistakes. They got off to a fast start and we had a hard time gaining traction and trying to come back and make it a ball game.”

Panuke said the thing he “will remember most about this team is the toughness and grit they showed throughout the season and in the playoffs. We played some really good teams and they stepped it up and played at a very high level.”

Carlos Recendiz
Carlos Recendiz

What I will remember most is the versatility of the squad. Panuke is great at developing skill players who can fill multiple roles. He had Schaecher and Javier Rodriguez running the ball up the middle, with Owen Bruner, Luke Beyer and Charlie Beyer pitching in on sweeps. Bruner, Boen and the Beyers proved dependable targets for Traeger, with Matt Hopkins, Briggs Snell and Isaac Berning spearheading a strong offensive line.

All of the above players, along with standout linebacker Carlos Recendiz, also played key roles on the defense, which was coached by Rylan Traeger.

Next year might prove to be a challenge with only Traeger and Berning returning among that group. But Panuke and his staff have proven to be excellent at developing players, with his teams consistently getting better and better as the season has gone on.

Panuke has gone 73-19 with six 10-win seasons in the past eight years, with a 2A title in 2018 and four second-place finishes, this year’s 3A squad plus 2A runner-up slots in 2015, 2019 and 2021.

But because of the challenge of climbing the 3A ladder this one will be remembered for a long time in Mount Angel.

Jackson Pfeifer
Jackson Pfeifer

Football statistics: The OSAA has released its statistical report for the just-completed football season and Jackson Pfeifer of Silverton is all over the list. Pfeifer, a 5-11, 180-pound senior running back/defensive back, finished fourth in the state with 33 touchdowns scored. Pfeifer scored six rushing TDs against Central and scored five times each against Crescent Valley and Dallas. The CV onslaught featured four rushing scores and one on a punt return, while the Dallas contest exhibited his full range of abilities: he scored twice on the ground, once on an interception return, once on a pass reception and once on a kickoff return while touching the ball only 14 times. Pfeifer also scored all four Foxes TDs in their 39-26 Class 5A quarterfinal loss at Wilsonville.

Also on the list was Kennedy senior linebacker Carlos Recendiz, who turned in a 20-tackle game for the Trojans. Recendiz, who transferred from Silverton to Kennedy for his final season, helped JFK shut out five opponents and limit four others to just one score.

Got a news tip? Email me at [email protected]. 

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