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Independence looks to continue turnaround, set for regional bowl game Friday at Venice

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Independence quarterback Ladon Denmark breaks through the Mendota line in last week's Central Section Division IV championship game. The Falcons won 28-21, and will play in the SoCal Regional Division 4-AA Bowl Game on Friday at Venice.

The Independence football team had hoped it had turned a corner in the spring when the team went 3-1 in an abbreviated season, following a delayed start to the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Falcons program had been hovering around the .500 mark each season and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2013 when they posted a pair of upset victories, including one over top-seeded Tulare Western in the Central Section Division 3 playoffs.

So any signs of turning the corner and becoming one of the better teams in the area was a welcome sight.

But things derailed even before the current season started. A positive COVID test wiped out the tail end of summer workouts and Independence entered the school year less prepared than fourth-year coach Tyler Schilhabel would have liked.

The downtime  due to health and safety protocols translated into a rough start, accelerated by a tough preseason schedule.

The Falcons opened the season 0-6, capped by a 42-28 loss to Bakersfield Christian to open South Yosemite League play in Week 7. The team started 0-5 two years ago, won three straight and then were blown out by Bakersfield Christian and Ridgeview and missed the playoffs.

Here we go again, right? Not so fast.

As it turns out, this group of football players has proven to be quite resilient, and Independence hasn’t lost since, winning eight straight games.

The journey led the Falcons (8-6) to their first section title, completed with a 28-21 victory over Mendota last week in the D-IV championship game. It was the school’s first final after falling short in three previous semifinals, giving the team the most wins in a season in the program’s 13-year history.

Now Independence finds itself in uncharted territory again, this time in the state playoffs. The team will travel to play Venice (8-3) for a Southern California Regional Division 4-AA Bowl Game at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The winner will travel to play for a CIF state title the following Saturday at either Novato-San Marin or Sutter, who play in Friday’s NorCal Regional Bowl Game.

“We watched (last week's) game and we’ve learned from the good and we’ve learned from the bad,” Schilhabel said. “Put it behind us and look forward to the next week, so obviously it’s a huge accomplishment for us as a team, making school history like that, but we knew going into that game, that if we won, we’d have a chance to make even bigger history, so I think we’re focused and ready to go for this week.”

Despite the game's magnitude, it was business as usual for the Falcons this week, according to Schilhabel.

“Really, we haven’t done anything out of the ordinary,” Schilhabel said. “The thing that’s helped us be successful these last eight games is just focusing on ourselves and what we do and limiting the mistakes, especially offensively. We don’t put too much thought into what the other team is doing. We have our game plan and what we want to do, so really we haven’t put a bunch of emphasis on changing things and making things different just because it’s a regional bowl game.”

The only real difference, as Schilhabel sees it, is the fact the team must play a game outside of Kern County for the first time in more than three months. The Falcons played all four of their section playoff games at home, as well.

“The biggest thing that’s at the forefront of my mind is just that fact that we haven’t traveled since Week 2 at Paso Robles,” Schilhabel said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to affect us a little differently, but other than that, we’re attacking it like we have the last eight games.”

Independence and Venice have had very similar paths to this point. Both rely heavily on the run game, and each has overcome slow starts and a bout with COVID to achieve success this year.

“I feel like we’re pretty evenly-matched teams,” Schilhabel said. “Both teams really like to run the ball. They run about 90 percent of the time. So, once again, very similar to us. They were also hit with a little bit of a COVID bug early in their season … and I read that their coach said that kind of put them behind the 8-ball. So I think we have more similarities than in just one way. They’re going to give us a good challenge and I’m excited for it.”

The Gondoliers started 1-3 and have since won seven straight, capped by a 36-9 victory over Canoga Park in last week’s Los Angeles City D-I final.

A pair of junior running backs lead the way for Venice. Romeo Signore and 6-foot-1, 210 pound Robert Lamar have combined for 1,476 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Signore also serves as the team’s kicker.

When the Gondoliers do decide to put the ball in the air, they have proven to be efficient with junior Paul Kessler throwing for 1,326 yards and 15 TDs, with just four interceptions.

The team’s big-play threat comes from another junior, receiver Rashawn Jackson, who has 43 catches for 690 yards and eight TDs. He’s also been dangerous on special teams, returning four kickoffs and a punt for scores.

Defensively, Venice has 13 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries in 11 games. Thomas Kensinger, a 6-4, 240-pound lineman, leads the team with 88 tackles, 18 for a loss, 7.5 sacks and 10 hurries, and also 11 pass deflections, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Jamier Flowers has six interceptions, including one returned for a score, and has returned two kickoffs for TDs.

The Falcons counter with a powerful 1-2 punch on offense with senior quarterback Ladon Denmark and do-everything senior Evan Peaker.

Denmark has 1,912 yards combined throwing and running the ball this season, accounting for 23 touchdowns (15 rushing, eight passing).

Peaker has rushed for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns, and returned a kickoff 83 yards for a score in last week’s section title game. He also had an interception and a forced fumble in the game, and is third on the team in tackles.

“The offense is definitely run through those two together,” said Schilhabel, who also mentioned the contributions of Jonathan Vigil as being key. “Obviously, Peaker gives us a spark with his physical running style, and LaDon just always seems to come up with that big play when we need him, whether it’s with his feet or throwing.

“(It's important to get) started on the ground with Peaker running the ball physically, LaDon making some guys miss and making some spectacular plays and defensively Peaker’s another catalyst, as well," he added.

The defense has also been anchored by seniors Demian Garcia and Bryan Flores.

“They fly around and make plays, get turnovers,” Schilhabel said. “That’s obviously the game plan. We want to run the ball, we want to be physical, that’s the biggest thing for us, first and foremost. We want to be more physical than the other team.

“Defensively, we’ve been kind of a bend-don’t-break. We’d obviously like to not give up points, but the biggest thing through all of this has been turnovers. We preach and pound turnovers. Because giving LaDon and Peaker extra touches is what is going to help us be successful.”