As the Irrigon Knights ran away with a Sept. 29 game against rival Riverside Pirates, coach Steve Sheller put in the junior varsity quarterback in the second half.
The switch didn’t slow the offense one bit. In fact, Sheller’s wife, watching from the sidelines, said she didn’t even notice when the change happened as the team put together several more touchdown drives on the way to a 50-0 win.
Aside from the ponytail, it’s hard to tell the difference between the play of Jada Burns and varsity starter Zach Hendricks.
Meanwhile in Pendleton, Hunter Kiele has been dedicating her afternoons to kicking on the football field instead of the soccer turf. The effort paid off this week as coach Erik Davis has named her the full-time PAT kicker for Friday’s game against Hood River Valley.
Burns and Kiele are the only girls since 2014 to play on their high school varsity football teams — lining up alongside and across the line of scrimmage from boys.
While it may be different to see a girl on the football field, varsity level athletics is not new terrain for these two. Burns has been a three-sport athlete throughout high school, and Kiele has played both basketball and soccer. What attracted them to football was a need for change and a competitive edge that made the transition into the world of sweaty teenage boys more tolerable.
“I’m a part of the team so me playing with a bunch of guys is not different to me,” Burns said. “I’m just part of a team playing a sport so being out there I didn’t think of it as, ‘oh they are guys and I’m the only girl.’ I just thought of us as one team.”
Burns grew up in a family where sports was the norm. Her older brother played basketball, her mother coached, and Burns was in the middle of it all attending practices and soaking in what she could.
“My mom has always pushed me to play sports,” she said. “And if I took a sport off she was like, ‘No, you’re playing.’”
That’s what led her to football.
She had basketball down and was one of the leaders on the softball team, but it was the fall sports season that threw the confident varsity star for a loop. She had tried volleyball but didn’t take a liking to it, and in her final year at Irrigon she knew she had to make a change.
Burns had played football before, during her eighth grade year at Armand Larive Middle School in Hermiston. She starts on Irrigon’s junior varsity team and has made appearances with the varsity squad, which are often later in the game.
Burns said football has brought something out in her that no other sport had.
“You have to be mentally into it because you’re always getting hit and sometimes you just want to take a break, but you can’t,” she said. “It’s just all mental, you have to have mental stability to be able to withstand the hits or hit somebody.”
When Burns made the decision to join the football squad before the start of her senior year, the possibility of being hit was what concerned her parents, coaches and extended family. Now that she is more than halfway through the season and has stayed healthy, their concerns have turned into excitement.
Hunter Kiele was practically an honorary member of the Pendleton Buckaroos football team before she was officially on the roster. Now, halfway through the season, head coach Erik Davis boasts that she is the best extra point kicker on the team, as Kiele is 6-for-8 on the season.
She had been spending the past two summers weightlifting with the boys, but it was never her intention to join the squad. She played soccer in the fall followed with basketball in the winter — her junior year athletic schedule was already set. But a bad experience with soccer left her looking for something else to fill her fall slate.
So, when a coach from the Bucks asked her “Hey can you kick a football?” her immediate response was: “I don’t know, I kick a soccer ball.”
Eventually, Kiele swapped cleats and went for the pigskin instead of the ball she was used to.
The transition wasn’t the easiest, and it took Kiele awhile to find her footing. After trial and error, she realized her kicks were more successful when she started closer to the ball.
Like Burns, the most difficult part of the game was the mental grit needed.
In Kiele’s case, it required her to be ready take the field on a moments notice and put points on the board.
“I’m only in the game for what, five seconds, and I have to be on the whole time and I have to be ready whenever just to go in,” she said.
Kiele’s varsity experience in other sports gave her some confidence for handling high pressure moments. But what she wasn’t ready for was how she would feel running onto Pendleton’s Round-Up Grounds for the first time.
“I have done it all [before with different teams], but out on the Round-Up Grounds, that was the coolest thing,” she said. “I have always been watching the games from the stands but getting to be a part of it was so cool. The environment, how everything works, and how we treat each other and everything it’s just so cool.”
The kicker has fit right in with her Buckaroo teammates and has drawn praise from everybody, from the coaches to the captains.
“We were a little bit surprised she actually came out for the team, but we’re glad she came out,” senior captain Shaw Jerome said. “She’s always positive and always brings a smile to everyone’s face when she shows up to the field. She has a great attitude towards everything even if she doesn’t make the field goal she still walks off the field with her head up and she just works hard every day.”
The culture and camaraderie from both schools has made tackling this new sport easier for both girls. As their regular seasons wind down, their decision to join their respective football teams has impacted the lives of other young girls who one day hope to do the same.
“A lot of little girls have come up to me and just kind of latched onto me and I think it’s really cool that I can be a role model for them,” Kiele said. “That’s one of my favorite parts about it, is (being) that.”
Contact Alexis at email@example.com or 541-564-4542. Follow her on Twitter @almansanarez.