IRRIGON — After starting the season with five straight wins, the Irrigon Knights felt like they were finally over the hump and could put the program’s forgettable first decade behind them.
The team had already secured its first-ever winning season and owned the OSAA’s No. 3 ranking. First-year head coach Steve Sheller’s offense looked unstoppable with the running backs Fredy Vera and Carlos Zacharias ripping off huge gains while the team won by an average of 32.2 points.
But then three straight losses to Columbia Basin Conference foes Stanfield, Weston-McEwen and Heppner had the Knights on the playoff bubble and questioning themselves.
“We were coming up short,” Sheller said. “Then you kind of have to trust the process and trust that we are getting somewhere. Going into the Pilot Rock game there was some doubt.
“We’re working hard, and people say we’re making progress, but are we really making progress?”
But the Knights dropped 50 on Pilot Rock in the first half of a 56-14 win, and head into Saturday’s first-ever playoff game with a renewed confidence.
“That kind of rejuvenated the kids’ trust in what they’re doing is right,” Sheller said. “We had a rough spell there so the kids had to fight through something that they never kind of experienced before. I think it’s sinking in that they do belong here, they earned this.
“We had an assembly for all sports at the high school (Thursday) and I could tell there was a buzz around Irrigon Knights football that is palpable.”
The No. 13 Knights (6-3) play at No. 4 Kennedy (7-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Kennedy (Mt. Angel) has been to the playoffs 18 times and each of the last six seasons, but has an all-time postseason record of 19-18 and has lost in the first round each of the last two seasons.
“We have them on film and you never can tell that stuff from looking at film, but it looks like we match up favorably to them,” Sheller said. “Kennedy looks like a good solid football team but they don’t look like world beaters.”
The Trojans line up on offense in an I-formation with 5-foot-9, 178 pound speed back Bishop Mitchell behind fullback Jacob Lopez (5-11, 210) and quarterback Brett Traeger (6-1, 175).
Mitchell is the offense’s focal point and his speed combines with enough tackle-breaking force to make him an effective runner between the tackles and on the edges. Lopez is an effective bruiser that sticks mostly between the hash marks but can also catch the ball coming out of the backfield.
Mitchell will sometimes split out wide, but Traeger’s favorite target in the passing game is possession receiver Owen Seiler (6-1, 175).
Containing Mitchell is the key to slowing the Kennedy offense, and the Trojans average just 26.1 points a game.
But that’s been plenty for a defense that is ranked No. 3 in the state and allows just 11 points a game.
Sheller said the Trojans employ a “hyper-aggressive” 3-5 front that mirrors what they saw in a 37-12 loss to Weston-McEwen.
“They just come at you from all angles,” he said. “We had our troubles with Weston but I think we were on our way to scoring (more), but we lost (quarterback) Nate (Verley) at that point.
“I think (that game) helps us but it just comes down to execution and who makes the plays. Kennedy is a well-coached football team with a bunch of good athletes so we’ll have to play our best football game on Saturday to win.”
Also out against Weston-McEwen was center/linebacker Cougar Kroske, who Sheller called the “heart and soul” of their defense. Both are healthy and back in the lineup this week and team enters the game at full strength.
Sheller said the field in Kennedy looks good based on the photos he’s seen this week, but with rain in the forecast they’re expecting mud.
“We’re preparing for a sloppy game,” he said before adding it wouldn’t affect the game plan much. “It’s been my long-held belief that you’ve got to run off tackle to win in 2A football.”
Sheller said he expects the Knights put a strong foot forward when they officially enter the state postseason for the first time on Saturday. (The only other team to ever compete in the football postseason under the Irrigon banner was the Irrigon Comets in a 36-22 loss to Sisters in the 1957 Class B-6 semifinals.)
“It’s all new to the boys, they’ve never done any of this stuff before, having to practice under the lights and stuff like that, having to play on Saturday afternoon. It’s all new,” he said. “We addressed the fact that they’ve never played in a meaningful game this late in the season, and we don’t have to be perfect, but we know we have to be better each game than we were in the last one.”
Contact Matt Entrup at firstname.lastname@example.org or (541) 966-0838.