DELANO — There was a message sent from northern Kern County on Friday night, and there’s little doubt — it was heard loud and clear.
South Sequoia League opponents beware, Kennedy coach Mario Millan has a power switch, and he’s not afraid to use it.
That was evident early in the second quarter when an energized Thunderbirds squad took charge of a see-saw battle against Taft, turning it into a 78-13 demolition.
“We knew they were going to give us a punch in the mouth right from the beginning,” Millan said. “(Taft has) had a really good preseason and had a great game last week. I think our defense felt that, and we needed a little bit of a humbling experience that first quarter.”
Kennedy's counterpunch packed quite a wallop.
Clinging to a 14-13 lead, after Taft missed the extra point following a short touchdown pass, the Thunderbirds (5-0, 1-0 SSL) wasted little time picking up the pace.
On Kennedy’s next play from scrimmage, senior quarterback Jose Cota connected with Antonio Meza for a 58-yard touchdown pass with 10:22 left in the first half. It was the start of 64 consecutive points for the Thunderbirds, capped by a 51-yard scoring run by Ricardo Solorio with a running clock marching toward 5 minutes left in the game.
“We kind of self-destructed,” said Taft coach George Falgout, whose team dropped to 3-2 overall. “As coaches, we have to do our part and try not to let that happen. But it happened. We’re a young football team, that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. And it’s hard for individuals to experience stuff like this, but we have to bounce back. The bottom line is, Kennedy is a very good football team. They’re well coached, and they do their thing and that’s why they were champions.”
It all started with Cota. The Thunderbirds’ quarterback finished with 180 yards rushing and four touchdowns on just eight carries in less than three quarters of work. That included scoring runs of 23, 13, 30 and seven yards. He also had 126 yards on 5 of 8 passing.
Cota opened the game with a 57-yard run to setup a 2-yard plunge by fullback Jesus Nuno that gave Kennedy a 7-0 lead just 1:40 into the game.
“Jose Cota is an incredible athlete,” Millan said. “He’s still learning to be a quarterback. He didn’t play football until he got to high school. He was a backup most of last year. His first real playing time was last year Week 10 against Chavez. So his athleticism takes over sometimes, and so even when he’s not polished as a quarterback, he’s such an athlete that he can make things happen on his own. That option package we have is built for him. He does a great job with that.”
But the Wildcats had an answer early in the game and tied the game on a 61-yard pass from quarterback Garrett Jeffries to Bryce Veach with 5:27 left in the first quarter.
The teams exchanged scoring drives with Kennedy regaining the lead on a 23-yard touchdown run by Cota, before the Wildcats responded with a 2-yard TD pass from Jeffries to Brett Walls four plays into the second quarter. Jeffries finished 10 of 19 passing for 165 yards and two TDs.
But Taft missed the extra point, and Kennedy scored three straight touchdowns, closing out the first half with a 10-yard scoring run by Francisco Medina with 3:08 left in the quarter to make it 35-13 at the break.
The Thunderbirds’ defense allowed just five first downs the rest of the way, intercepted a pass and recovered two fumbles, all of which led to scores as RFK outscored the Wildcats 36-0 in the third quarter to build a 71-13 advantage.
“I think honestly it was the defensive side of the ball (that turned the game around),” Millan said. “We needed someone to do some things to get us out of our comfort zone. I think once the defense gets settled, we get settled across the board.
“The offense does what they do. They’re a machine. They do a great job always. I never worry about them. I always center on defense to make sure they take care of business.”
Kennedy finished with 581 yards of offense, including 455 yards on the ground. Solorio had 106 yards rushing on 10 carries and also had three catches for 52 yards. Medina had 61 yards and two TDs on eight carries and Avien Pesina had a 24-yard scoring run to close out the third quarter.
RFK scored on its first six possessions of the second half, including a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown by Enrique Ramirez for a 64-13 lead.
Even when things appeared to go against the Thunderbirds, they were able to turn it into a big play. Cota turned a bobbled snap on an extra point attempt into a two-point conversion, connecting with Tahj Kelly.
Cota also turned what looked to be a sure sack into a long scoring play, eluding two tacklers, cut across the field and sprinted 30 yards for a TD on his team’s opening drive of the second half. Cota scored again on the following possession and was lifted with 9:10 left in the third quarter.
“I’ve been on both sides,” Falgout said. “I’ve been where Kennedy is tonight. But when you’re on this side, you just have to look at it and see it for what it is and educate our players and where we went wrong. It’s just like when you win a game, you have to do the same thing. You have to worry about the next week and not dwell on what you just did.”