It wasn't so long ago that running backs around the CBBN ran with impunity against the Kennewick Lions.
In 2009, the Lions allowed 213 rushing yards a game, leaving them dead last in the league in defense.
"I played varsity my sophomore year, and I thought we had bigger guys then, but we were just 2-7," Kennewick senior defensive lineman Ivan Diaz said. "You could kind of see why. During practice, guys weren't really getting along."
The Lions needed a new direction, a new vision. Most of all, they needed some heart.
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Fast forward two years, and Kennewick is a changed team. When the Lions (10-1) face Kamiakin (11-0) in the 3A quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lampson Stadium, it will be their 11th trip to the state quarters and first since 2007.
The two teams met back in Week 4, with the Braves grinding out a 14-6 decision thanks to some gritty fourth-quarter play in front of a packed house at Lampson. Expect another standing-room only crowd, and this time it's not just city pride at stake. It's Kennewick's chance to move into the state semifinals for the first time since 1992.
"It's obvious it's just a high school game, but this is one of the moments you'll always remember your entire life," said senior linebacker T.J. Fields. "Needless to say, we're both great teams in how far we've come. There's a reason they were in the championship last year, but there's a reason we're here, too."
A big reason for the Lions' turnarond is defense. After the unsavory finish in 2009, former assistant coach Ron Baze and defensive coordinator Jason Slagle went to work on a new formation designed to better stop the run. With plenty of help from defensive line coach Tom Walsh and defensive backs coach Todd Puckett, Slagle.got the players to buy into the new system.
Instead of the 3-3-5 formation it was using, Kennewick adopted a 3-4 front that would allow the linebackers and safeties to make plays. For that to happen, however, the linemen had to do most of the heavy lifting in the trenches.
"It starts with the defensive line and a willingness to sacrifice stats for the good of the team," Slagle said. "It's tough to ask a kid who gets one shot at high school football to, instead of making a tackle for a loss, fit inside that pulling lineman and let other people make plays. But what's really cool about his group is that team success is more important than individual success."
Instead of complaining about not getting tackles or enough playing time, the players embraced their coaches' vision of a stingy, impenetrable defense. Much of that selflessness comes from the strong relationships the players have built between each other.
"All of us are out there enjoying our time together like family," said senior lineman Jarod Gonzales. "(Not getting tackles) doesn't bother me at all. We're not just out there for ourselves. We're out there to win and to make sure they don't get any yards."
That's exactly what has happened this season. Through 11 games, the Lions have allowed a league low 863 rushing yards (78.4 per game) and 960 passing yards (87.3 p/g) while giving up just 62 points all season -- an average of just 5.6 per game. Even three-time defending 3A champion Bellevue gave up 169 points (12.1 p/g) during it's title run in 2010.
So effective is the Lions' line that when the CBBN all-conference list came out, all of the team's interior linemen were included somewhere. Jake Sullins, who doesn't even start, was named to the first-team.
"As an offensive play caller, it's nice to know that if we have to punt it's no big deal," Kennewick coach Bill Templeton said. "If we need to take some risks, we can do so. Again and again, our defense has kept people out of the end zone. That's the name of the game."
The name of the game against Kamiakin might be stopping Zach Umemoto, who is the only running back this year to eclipse 100 yards against the Lions, rolling up 134 yards on 29 carries. That total was well-earned, according to Kennewick coaches and players, but the Lions doen't plan on letting that happen again.
"Kamiakin's offensive line is one of the best, well-coached lines we see every year. We held Umemoto to 76 yards until their last drive. When the game had to be won, their O-line took over," Slagle said. "We need to be more consistent at stopping the run. Our big thing will be our linebackers and safeties' ability to tackle Umemoto and not let him fall forward. He's amazing at getting hit and gaining an extra yard or two."
Whatever happens, it's going to be an epic battle between two of the best lines in the CBBN.
"Quarterfinals against Kamiakin. It doesn't get any better than this," Wilz said. "We've just gotta go out and play. We have nothing to lose."