CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Kennedy Coach Brian White had matchups like this in his sights from the moment the Iowa High School Athletic Association created its RPI system to help determine playoff qualifiers.
The rankings reward teams for winning percentage and that of their opponents, benefiting programs with stronger schedules. At the time it was announced, White said he wanted to make a splash with his non-district slate, extending beyond the immediate area, and that’s when perennial power West Des Moines Valley came calling.
“When you look at a dynasty program like Valley, there are so many upsides to putting them on your schedule,” White said. “The RPI, the fact they are a dynasty team and you’re bringing in this high-profile team from out west that has all these state championships and playoff appearances. That excites kids and it excites fans.”
The pairing also produces a top-10 meeting when Class 4A top-ranked Valley makes its first trip to Kingston Stadium to play No. 8 Kennedy Friday night in a battle of unbeatens.
“Everyone is excited,” Kennedy linebacker Cade Parker said. “This is the chance we’ve all been waiting for. This is a chance to prove that we’re an elite team and we can compete with winning programs.”
The game will be a good measuring stick for the Cougars.
“You want to be able to line up against someone like that and see where you stand, because you know they are going to be good,” White said. “It’s a totally different level and that’s how we’ve been practicing this week. We made it very clear that what we’ve done up to this point, that it’s not good enough.”
The Tigers handled Kennedy 42-0 a year ago at Valley Stadium. Both teams were 2-0 then as well, but the game was all Valley, which rushed for 275 yards and four touchdowns and allowed less than 150 total yards.
The game was a learning experience. The Cougars know what has to be different this time.
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“We just have to fear no man,” Parker said. “We have to let it loose and play our game. Last year didn’t go the way we wanted at all and it’s a big step up, so we have to be more mentally prepared this year.”
The coaches have emphasized discipline and doing the smallest things right during practice and games. They are keys to becoming a top-tier programs and beating annual contenders, like a five-time state champion.
“That is where we want to be,” said White, who led the Cougars to the 2015 state title game. “We want to be an elite program. We’re a good program, but we don’t want to be good. We want to be elite, so you have to play those guys, but you have to understand it’s a whole other ballgame when you line up against those guys.”
Defensive play has powered Kennedy to a strong start, allowing 17 total points through two games. The Cougars have surrendered just 282 yards of total offense and only two touchdowns. They have tallied 12 sacks and 16 solo tackles for loss already this season.
“We’re all going to be aggressive,” Parker said. “Get up field as quick as possible. We’re more physical than in the past.
“We’re going to come there with a purpose and when we hit we’re going to hit with a purpose, too.”
White’s forte is defense, serving as the Cougars’ defensive coordinator before his five-year tenure as head coach. He has established a fast-paced scheme that takes chances with the blitz and pressures the quarterback.
It will be tested against a Tigers offense that averages 373 yards per game. Valley quarterback Braeden Katcher has thrown for 412 yards and three receivers are already over 100 yards. Jack Johnson leads with way 160 receiving yards and two TDs on 12 catches. Creighton Mitchell is Valley’s leading rusher with 105 yards on 22 carries.
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“I’ve got to have dudes that can play in our defense,” White said. “We’ve got linebackers that can fly to the ball. We have defensive linemen that do a great job getting off the ball. Our (defensive backs), especially our corners, are fantastic.”
Valley is coming off two solid wins, including a 29-22 decision over six-time defending state champion and rival West Des Moines Dowling. The Tigers defense has given up 716 yards, but Kennedy has relied heavily on the rush thus far.
The Cougars have amassed 575 yards on the ground, including 213 from Cairron Hendred and 197 from quarterback Max White. They have combined for eight scores. Kennedy’s pass game has produced just 79 yards without a TD and three interceptions.
“You can’t be one-dimensional to beat a Valley,” White said. “We have to throw the ball. We know that.”
Regardless of the outcome, the battle between highly-ranked teams is a good opportunity for the Cougars. They will be able to get a good idea of how they stack up to one of the state’s best.
“Every coach will tell you there is no such thing as a moral victory,” White said. “There are wins and losses. That is true but it is also going to show us exactly where we’re at.
“It’s going to be eye-opening, either positive or negative. Whatever the outcome is, we are going to learn from it.”
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