Numbers don’t lie.
Neither does tradition.
Despite having both on its side, the Kentwood High football team enters the season in a rather unusual predicament this fall. The Conquerors, contrary to their tradition and three-plus decades of success both in the regular season and the playoffs, are flying under the radar. And it suits them just fine.
“Probably deservedly so,” said eighth-year coach Rex Norris. “We have a bunch of kids who haven’t been in the position to really show what they have. Mostly, we’re missing varsity experience. These guys haven’t had the opportunity of going out there and being the guy. There are a lot of first timers out there.”
While that may be the case, however, don’t mistake this year’s edition of the Conquerors as underdogs. Though Kentwood will have to find a way to replace Mikell Everette, the South Puget Sound League North Division’s Co-Offensive Back of the Year, wide receiver Jason Boyce and a slew of all-league selections, the cupboard is hardly bare for the boys in black, white, green and silver. Though the Conks were hit by graduation, they still enjoyed a turnout of more than 120 players.
And, of course, there’s that tradition.
Kentwood has delivered seven state berths during the past decade. Toss in the fact that the Conquerors have never posted a losing record — not a single time in the 30 years since the doors to the school first opened — and has finished among the top 4 in the SPSL North every year since the league was divided into its North-South format in 1991, and there’s still ample reason for optimism.
A reason for that optimism, however, is simple. Kentwood has fielded a near flawless junior varsity team the last several years. Those players have simply moved up the ranks this fall.
“We haven’t lost a junior varsity game in four or five years,” said Norris, who was unable to remember exactly the last defeat by the junior varsity team. “We’re as optimistic now as we were a year ago at this time.”
Which is saying something considering the Conquerors won the league crown last fall, posting the program’s first unbeaten regular season (9-0) since 1994. Adding to the positive feel is the fact that whenever Kentwood has needed to find someone in past years to fill a void, whether it be a top-tier running back or a quality lineman, it has had the luxury of being able to dip into its wealth of players and finding the perfect fit. The running back position is a key example of that. The Conquerors have had at least one 1,000-yard running back in 10 of the last 11 years.
So while the names change, the results have remained largely the same.
All told, however, Kentlake — and not Kentwood despite winning last year’s crown — has been tabbed as the team to beat in the preseason coaches’ poll
“They are the team to beat, by far,” Norris said. “They have a lot of talent back, and they do a good job. They’ve taken a lot of steps in the right direction. We’re going to have to work our butts off to make the playoffs.”
That road to the playoffs will begin for Kentwood at 7 p.m. Sept. 2, when the Conquerors play host to Mount Rainier at French Field. It will be the first opportunity for many of those new faces get to play under the Friday night lights for the first time. And though there will be plenty of new faces dotting the Kentwood sidelines, the Conquerors still return some of the top talent in the SPSL North, much of which is on the offensive line.
Behind Greg Tulio (6-0/300), Quincy Davison (6-3/300), Matt Herrick (6-2/240) and Kevin Bond (6-1/220), the Conquerors possess the core of one of the strongest and fastest offensive lines in the league, which has long been a staple of the program’s success.
“It’s huge to have those guys back,” Norris said. “Being able to aid our running backs and quarterbacks, it’s nice to have offensive linemen who already have played together, and weathered the storm a little bit.”
Who the line will be opening those holes for, however, remains to be seen.
Fullback Visa Thach certainly will see his share of carries and, at 5-9 and 230 pounds, is a load to bring down. Senior Matt Hubbard (5-10/180), who has enjoyed his share of carries in each of the last two years (74 carries for 430 yards and seven touchdowns in the last two years combined) also will see some action as will juniors Tre Thomas (5-11/180) and Chance Kalua-Fuimaono (5-10/200).
The quarterback position isn’t quite as up in the air as Dane Manio, who took over late last season and helped the Conquerors win 3 of 4 games, will be back behind center. However, Norris said, junior Jackson Huerta will see plenty of time, too.
“With us, your position is never safe,” Norris said. “You’ve got to perform.”
Which is what the Conquerors are expecting to do this fall, regardless of flying just a bit under the radar.