KENNEWICK -- On offense, on defense -- there might be a whisker's difference between the Kamiakin Braves and Kennewick Lions.
On special teams, though, there is a vast gulf. At least there was Saturday.
Two blocked punts and a fumbled return led to a Braves' scoring burst late in the first half, and another muffed punt return opened the door to a clinching score in Kamiakin's 22-14 win over the Lions in a 3A state quarterfinal at Lampson Stadium.
Zach Umemoto ran for 118 yards on 30 tough carries for Kamiakin, and Drew Oord scored a pair of touchdowns, including an 8-yard return of his own punt block.
That play proved a key turning point in the game.
"It's a game of momentum," said Kamiakin coach Scott Biglin, who has guided the Braves to back-to-back semifinal appearances in his three years.
Kamiakin (12-0) will face a familiar foe next Saturday back at Lampson when unbeaten and top-ranked Bellevue (12-0) comes to town (time TBD). The Wolverines have won eight of the last 10 3A state titles and three in a row, including last year's 38-0 rout of Kamiakin in the championship game.
"Everybody's excited," said Oord, a starter on last year's team. "We knew we have to practice hard this week to get ready for them. But for now, we want to redeem ourselves and show that we belong with them."
It was no surprise that points were at a premium with two dominating defenses on the field, and it was Kennewick (10-2) that struck first.
After threatening on their first drive but coming up empty from inside the 10, the Lions hit the big plays late in the first quarter.
Grant Woods, who broke off a 47-yard run on the first drive, bounced outside for 46 more to move Kennewick to the 26. From there, Brock Schuh went up strong to win a jump ball at the goal line for a 26-yard scoring pass from Bryce Leavitt and a 7-0 lead.
After Kamiakin stalled at midfield on its next possession, the Braves forced a three-and-out, thanks to a sack and another stop from Kevin Graeger.
Devven Ramos was back near the Lions' 10 to punt, but Oord crashed through the middle and stuffed the kick. The ball took a lollipop hop right into Oord's arms, and it was an easy score.
The play tied the score and seemed to put a chill on the Kennewick side of the stadium. And none of it would have happened but for a heads-up play from Kamiakin sophomore special-teamer Thomas Kirk.
"We had a sophomore tell our coach, 'There's a huge hole in the A gap on the left side, and I think Oord can get through,' " Oord said. "I got through, but I thought he kicked it already. I saw he still had (the ball), and I got my arms up and it hit my arms. I got it and went into the end zone -- scoop and score."
And the start of a seven-minute run of special teams breaks for the Braves.
Kirk got a chance to make a play of his own, blocking another punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety and the lead with 1:45 left in the half.
Then, after starting on the Kennewick 41 following the free kick, the Braves punted the ball away, only to have the Lions fumble it back on the return.
On the next play, Jason Hutchison hit Jesse Houser for a 17-yard touchdown and a 15-7 lead.
"To win at this level, you've got to have good special teams and you can't turn the ball over," said Kennewick coach Bill Templeton. "Kamiakin did a nice job."
The short fields and turnovers proved the difference. Kennewick outgained Kamiakin 244-221 on offense. Woods finished with 140 yards, but his effectiveness was sapped after Leavitt injured his throwing hand early in the game.
The senior threw just two passes after that early scoring toss -- one a shovel pass to Bodie Simpson and the other an interception by James Swinyard.
When the Lions needed to throw late, they moved Leavitt to receiver and brought in junior Kaden Julian, who had played sparingly and mostly in late-game blowouts.
Still, he connected with Ramos on a 56-yard catch-and-run with 5:11 to play. But when Kennewick mounted a final drive from its own 8 with 2:54 to play, Braves defensive coordinator Tim Maher brought the pressure.
Dylan Keech snagged a pair of sacks, and Johnny Jansen and Tyler Merkel each tipped away passes to lock up the win.
"It feels great," Keech said. "We're on top of the world."
Kamiakin had its own trouble passing the ball. Hutchison, who missed last week's game with a badly broken middle finger on his throwing hand, had to contend with a splint and the cold, wet weather. He completed just one of his first eight throws, finished 4-for-15 for 88 yards and was sacked four times. Still, he said, it was a good day.
"The run game is huge right now," he said. "It's opening the door for our passing game. If we keep this up, maybe we upset Bellevue."
As for the Lions, they are left to wonder "what if" after losing just two games this year -- both to Kamiakin, and both on down-to-wire finishes.
"I'm very proud of these boys," Templeton said. "We competed to the very last play of the year. It didn't turn out the way we wanted, but that doesn't change how I feel and the coaches feel, and how the community feels about these young men walking off the field right here."
Kamiakin 22, Kennewick 14
Kennewick 7 0 0 7 -- 14
Kamiakin 0 15 0 7 -- 22
Ken--Brock Schuh 26 pass from Bryce Leavitt (Paul Martinez kick)
Kam--Drew Oord 8 block kick return (Blake Wagar kick)
Kam--Safety, punt blocked out of end zone
Kam--Jesse Houser 17 pass from Jason Hutchison (kick fail)
Kam--Oord 6 pass from Hutchison (Wagar kick)
Ken--Devven Ramos 56 pass from Kaden Julian (Martinez kick)
RUSHING--Ken, Grant Woods 16-140, Ramos 1-1, Bodie Simpson 1-1, Leavitt 5-(minus 1), Shaun Smith 1-(minus 4), Julian 3-(minus 20). Kam, Zach Umemoto 30-118, Oord 6-24, Hutchison 6-(minus 9).
PASSING--Ken, Leavitt 3-6-1--36, Julian 3-7-0--91. Kam, Hutchison 4-15-1--88.
RECEIVING--Ken, Ramos 2-62, Simpson 2-17, Brock Schuh 1-26, Reggie Clinton 1-22. Kam, K Perrins 1-34, Brandon Larson 1-31, Houser 1-17, Oord 1-6.
FIRST DOWNS--Ken 7, Kam 11. FUMBLES-LOST--Ken 4-1, Kam 0-0. PENALTIES-YARDS--Ken 3-21, Kam 7-61.