The only other time Kennedy played in a CIF Southern California regional playoff football game, Mario Millan was an assistant coach on the Thunderbirds staff.
Kennedy was coming off a second consecutive Central Section Division VI championship in 2015, and was wide-eyed to the possibility of playing for a shot at a state title. In turn, Kennedy lost to San Juan Capistrano-Saddleback Valley Christian, 59-45.
Give everyone involved a little slack, however. Kennedy opened in 2009 and started the football program with 30 consecutive losses. The Thunderbirds were just 4-48 before Dennis Moody took over the program in 2014.
Since then, Kennedy has gone 44-20 in the last five years. Last Friday, the team won a third section title during that span with a 30-28 victory over Shafter in the Division V championship.
The win avenged their lone loss this season, as the Thunderbirds (13-1) now gear up for their CIF SoCal D-4A regional game at Garfield (12-1) in East Los Angeles on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Millan, who is now head coach of the Thunderbirds, said there was a little bit of nerves and general inexperience going into the 2015 state playoffs. He added that those roadblocks aren't in place this time around.
“Going into that Saddleback game, it was new to us,” Millan said. “I am not going to say we were just happy to be there, but it was something we didn’t know. Now we are in a higher division and are ready to win. That’s the biggest difference since then. We all feel good that we can go in there and pull this off.”
Garfield was 12-0 before losing to Harbor City-Narbonne 55-7 in the L.A. City Section Open Division finals last week. The section is one of just two in California that allows both teams in the Open Division championship game to advance to state.
The Bulldogs play a spread offense that allows them to average 219.7 rushing yards per game.
“We’re just a bunch of hard-nosed kids from East L.A. that take a lot of pride in where we are from,” said Lorenzo Hernandez, who is in his 18th season as the head coach of the Bulldogs. “We are proud of that.”
While Garfield runs an offense that is well known in Southern California, seeing the old-school Wing-T offense the Thunderbirds deploy is like finding a needle in a haystack south of the Grapevine.
“We bring something new to the table for Garfield,” Millan said. “What they have is nothing new for us. We’ve seen it. They have never played a Wing-T team. They have never seen our defense. That lends into our favor.”
Tyreak Walker has been superb for Kennedy with 2,207 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, while Yocanni Sandoval has added 1,260 rushing yards and another 20 scores.
The two are also top options in the passing game for junior quarterback Jose Cota, as the duo has combined for 772 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
With one of the top rushing offenses in the state, Kennedy will get a chance to showcase its speed, but it’s the defense that Millan is excited about most.
While he allows offensive coordinator Cal Tincher — a former head coach at Delano High and West Hills College in Lemoore — to run the offense, Millan and defensive coaches Josh Mendoza and Jonathan Nunez have faith that Kennedy's defensive front will create some havoc of its own.
“They run a real traditional spread set. They have a lot of gaps, which is fine,” Millan said of Garfield. “But our linebackers love to blitz and have never seen lanes like that.”
Tito Enciso and Anthony Ontiveros have combined for 21 of the 45 sacks for the Thunderbirds defense this season.
“They are going to run through it. They love it,” Millan said of his defense. “They are used to getting skinny through small spaces. This is new. I haven’t seen a team pressure them like we do. That’s an advantage for our guys.”