SHAFTER — One Kennedy player fell onto his back with his arms and legs spread, staring through his helmet at the sky — seemingly in disbelief. The other Thunderbirds ran frantically toward any teammates they could find to jump, hug and headbutt before turning to the crowd and flailing their arms.
Shafter was the top seed, at home and hadn’t lost all year. The Generals had handedly beaten Kennedy earlier in the year.
But when it mattered most, in the Central Section Division V championship game, it was the Thunderbirds celebrating. No. 3 Kennedy (13-1) held on for a 30-28 win over Shafter (12-1) on Friday for its third section title in the last five years.
Shafter scored its final touchdown with 1:45 left in the game but couldn’t recover the onside kick.
“It feels great,” said Kennedy’s Tyreak Walker, both at a loss for words and straining to speak. “I can’t even talk right now. I’m just proud of my team.”
The stadium was packed more than an hour prior to kickoff. Fans sat in lawn chairs on blankets in the grass behind one end zone. In bleachers behind the other end were players and families from Shafter’s 1955 team — the last Generals squad to win a section title. By gametime, fans overflowed from any available seating and lined the fences around the field.
What transpired on the field lived up to all the hype.
The third quarter was winding down and the Thunderbirds were on the verge of putting the game out of reach. That was until Shafter’s Jackson Sanchez scooped up a fumble at his 10-yard line and returned it all the way for score.
Instead of trailing 37-13, Shafter cut the lead to 30-20.
Kennedy drove down the field before throwing an interception in the end zone. The Thunderbirds missed a field goal on the next possession, keeping Shafter’s hopes alive.
“They had to play a perfect game,” Kennedy head coach Mario Millan said. “We had two errors, but other than that they played nearly a perfect game.”
A 70-yard pass from Alex Aguilar moved the Generals into the red zone. He found Marco Rodriguez from a yard out with 1:45 to go. Aguilar scrambled in the two-point conversion to make it 30-28 and make a game-winning field goal possible.
But Kennedy recovered the onside kick and did as it had all game: leaned on its running game and Walker to run out the clock.
“Tyreak is a workhorse,” Millan said. “We told him this was gonna be on him: offense and defense.”
Aguilar threw for three touchdowns after breaking the Central Section record for touchdowns by a quarterback the game prior. His season totaled ended at 66.
Walker ran for two touchdowns and totaled 203 yards on 31 carries. Kennedy’s Yoncanni Sandoval took a draw run 76 yards to the house and caught a 71-yard touchdown pass. Quarterback Jose Cota completed four of his nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Because of those three, Kennedy jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first half. The Thunderbirds stifled the potent Shafter offense by moving its offensive athletes to defense, too, and packing the middle.
“We said we’ll save it until we need it,” Millan said. “Well the ‘Valley’ championship is when you need it.”
Kennedy made a field goal at the end of the first half to go ahead 24-7, but time appeared to run out prior to the snap.
“I just wish I could have got them one more win,” Shafter head coach Jerald Pierucci said. “We just can’t make mistakes like we did. I mean how many touchdowns passes dropped, fumble on the 1, PAT missed, field goal missed, interception in the end zone. I don’t know how many times we were in the end zone and couldn’t finish.”
Millan’s postgame speech centered around the idea of family and his love for his players. They’re his children, he said, but they’re also his brothers. They have each other’s backs.
“Tonight we walked into the alley together,” Millan yelled to his players, “and we walked out together.”
Division V Central Section championship
No. 3 Kennedy 30, No. 1 Shafter 28
Kennedy - 7 17 6 0 - 30
Shafter - 0 7 13 8 - 28
K - Walker 48 run (Fiero kick)
K - Walker 34 run (Fiero kick)
K - Sandoval 76 run (Fiero kick)
S - Sanchez 6 pass from Aguilar (Valencia kick)
K - Fiero 32 field goal
S - Rodriguez 46 pass from Aguilar (Kick fail)
K - Sandoval 71 pass from Cota (Kick kick)
S - Sanchez 90 fumble return (Rodriguez kick)
S - Rodriguez 1 pass from Aguilar (Aguilar run)
RUSHING - K: Cota 9-62, Walker 31-203, Sandoval 10-141, Medina 4-10, Carillo 1-1. S: Avila 24-113, Aguilar 7-15, Hernandez 2-0.
PASSING - K: Cota 4-8-1-130. S: Aguilar 17-35-1-220.
RECEIVING - K: Sandoval 2-90, Carillo 2-40. S: Chacon 3-77, Rodriguez 6-84, Enriquez 5-29, Sanchez 2-15, Avila 1-9.
W-L: RFK 13-1; SHS 12-1.