With cancelations, postponements and schedule changes becoming almost commonplace, the past 18 months have been a bit bumpy for the Kennedy football team, lined with more than a few holes and unexpected obstacles.
Unfortunately, that same description could be said for the Thunderbirds’ practice field this season, a patch of unmanicured grass near the baseball field on the edge of the school’s campus where the team has been relegated the last several months while the school’s stadium was being renovated.
The construction, which was primarily focused on repairs to the field’s artificial turf, began following the 2019 season and was just completed this week, allowing Kennedy to practice at the facility for the first time in nearly two years.
And just in time.
To christen the new surface, the Thunderbirds (5-1, 1-0) are hosting Wasco (4-0, 1-0) on Friday at 7:30 p.m., in a battle between two of the South Sequoia League’s top teams. And, oh by the way, it’s also Kennedy’s Homecoming.
“It’s going to be our first game at home this year so there’s going to be a little added juice to the whole equation,” said Thunderbirds coach Mario Millan, whose team practiced at the school’s home stadium on Monday for the first time since Nov. 21, 2019, the day before losing 27-7 on the road to Selma in the Central Section Division 4 semifinals.
The return to their familiar turf field has also enabled Millan’s squad to do something else — practice at full speed.
With the temporary practice field littered with holes and uneven areas throughout, Millan was forced to pull the plug on his high-energy workouts when several players suffered twisted ankles and knees.
“Our back area is pretty rough,” said Millan, whose team also utilized the school’s gymnasium to practice whenever possible. “We just kind of divied up some areas with some lines, but then we kind of realized that, ‘oh wow, this is pretty bad out here.’ It’s neglected because we don’t use it.
"The district and school did their best to get it right for us, but we realized pretty fast, honestly, the first couple weeks of practice we had about seven to eight soft-tissue injuries, so we said, ‘ok, we’re done.’ We are not going to compromise anyone else at this point. So we finally got to the point where we said we’re going to just do some glorified walk-throughs everyday. Very rarely did we do any full sprints. Because of that, our timing was off and our conditioning wasn’t there.”
Although it hasn't necessarily shown on the field, with the Thunderbirds cruising through much of their schedule thus far, the effects of the limited training sessions were apparent to Millan after watching his squad’s discomfort after their first workout.
“We noticed on Monday when we had our full practice, how gassed we were from our practice,” said Millan, whose team did not play during the spring season when the Delano Unified School District opted not to participate. “Our kids were hurting, and I thought wow, we’ve really done them a disservice by not really working hard enough.”
But Millan believes it won’t take long to make up for the lost time, and in the interim he and his team are just happy to be back “home.”
“So this is the first week we’ve got to see our guys run at full speed, with confidence, and not worried about what’s going on,” Millan said. “It’s good to see us get back into more of a normal groove.”
Millan is also hoping the return to some sort of normalcy will translate into another solid performance on Friday.
“This is obviously a great group for them,” Millan said. “Watching them on film, this is one of the better groups I think they’ve had in a long time. They’ve done some wrinkles in their offense that have been really great for them, really big-time plays. They’re going to be a handful for us. But our kids are looking forward to it. We’re excited about it and we hope this turns out to be as great a game as it is on paper.”
The Tigers, who went 0-3 in the spring, are averaging 47 points per game with preseason victories over Tehachapi, South and North, followed by a 50-6 win over McFarland two weeks ago in the SSL opener.
“We’re excited,” Wasco coach Chad Martinez said. “We knew even last year that we were a very capable team. We always circle the Kennedy game just because Coach Millan runs a great program. I have a ton of respect for the program he’s been running. We knew this was going to be a huge game. Since I’ve been at Wasco it’s always had some title implications.”
Led by senior running back Omar Tovar’s 448 yards rushing and four touchdowns, Wasco is averaging 286 yards on the ground. The team has also shown an ability to throw the ball with senior quarterback Jacob Ruiz passing for 454 yards and eight scores.
“We think we’re one of the top teams in the SSL, and I guarantee you, so does Kennedy,” Martinez said. “Just about every other team believes they can win every week, and Kennedy’s no different. The best way to describe them is as a well-oiled machine. We’ve put ourselves into a position to match up with them, and of course, it’s always going to be just a smash-mouth game. We’re just going to run at each other and see who flinches first.”
The Thunderbirds gameplan centers primarily on the run, utilizing three talented backs as part of a unit that averages 360 yards per game rushing. Senior Avian Pesina has run for 925 yards and 13 touchdowns, with Hugo Mora grounding out 644 yards and four TDs. Drake Sand has rushed for 310 yards and five scores.
“We are a very young team,” Millan said. “We only have one senior on defense and four on offense,” Millan said. “If you came to one of our practices and listened to our kids, you'd say, ‘ya, you guys aren’t very mature at all.’ And we had to battle that, the growing up of our kids. Those are things we normally handle in the offseason, team bonding types of things. But we got none of that since we didn’t have a spring season.”
But Kennedy’s lack of maturity has not been an issue on game day.
“What we found is, as much as our kids are not there yet in terms of their maturity overall, when the lights kick on, they become different cats,” Millan said. “We knew we had a good foundation because of the kids we had, but we didn’t know what they were going to bring to the table football-wise. They hadn’t played in a while, and we thought this could be ugly right? So I was really worried, personally. And I tell you, that Thursday night light flicked on (in Week 1), and wow. These guys just became football players really fast.
“So I’ve been very impressed with how these guys manage themselves in a game, the level that they compete at, it’s been outstanding. I’d rank them with some of the better teams I’ve ever coached when it comes to that game night environment.”