Imagine trying to play Class 3A-4A high school football without a locker room.
Or without a set practice schedule, one that would move you around to different locations.
Or that you’re doing it for a new football coach that you’ve only known for six months, and he’s bringing in a new offensive and defensive system that you have to adjust to.
Or that your starting quarterback — who also is a standout at defensive back — gets sidelined after Week 6 with a leg infection and hasn’t played since.
Now, imagine doing this while going to school on and around a construction site.
This is what the Kennewick Lions have been going through this year.
When you think about it, a good season under those above-listed conditions would be a 5-5 record.
But this group of Lions is special.
It’s just one of just four teams left in the WIAA Class 3A state football playoffs, sitting with an 11-1.
They play in the state semifinals against the O’Dea Irish (11-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday, at Pop Keeney Stadium in Bothell, for a chance to play for the state title on Dec. 7.
It’s the farthest Kennewick has gone since 1992, when the Lions fell 35-27 to Puyallup.
This Lions bunch has the physical talent, and by proof of their two state playoff victories, have shown they have the mental toughness to play with the state’s best.
Two weeks ago, Kennewick beat Yelm 35-34 in overtime.
Last week, with his Lions defense spending a lot of time on the field, head coach Randy Affholter watched his guys beat a very talented Bethel Braves squad 21-20.
After the game, Kennewick players were spent, lying on the field with dehydration, exhaustion, some players vomiting.
“I’ve been in this game for 30 years, and that was the most physical high school game I’ve ever been involved in,” said Affholter.
He was hired in the spring to teach and coach the football team. He came from Ellensburg, where he was an institution there, leading many Bulldogs teams to the state playoffs.
He could have finished his career there, but the Kennewick job opening was too good to pass up.
Affholter knew what he was getting into coming in:
- A brand new, $87 million high school was being built, and the students would be temporarily housed in portable buildings, the old Fruitland Elementary school, the Legacy High School building, the old Annex building and gym, and the old high school’s 400 Hall.
- There would be no locker room of any kind.
- While Lampson Stadium sits there with construction all around it, it’s a facility that all three Kennewick schools — Kamiakin and Southridge — use also. So alternative practice sites would have to be found.
- And these kids would have to get used to a new coach and his systems.
“They’ve done a great job with it,” said Affholter. “They haven’t said anything about it. There is no locker room. No place to put their gear. So they have it in their cars.”
Affholter remembers right after Daylight Saving Time, he found Park Middle School to practice. But the team had to cut things short because it got dark too early.
Eastgate Elementary, by the Benton County Fairgrounds, has been the go-to practice site for much of the season.The team gets a bus for those players who can’t drive, while the older players drive to practice.
“The last two weeks is the only time where we’ve been at the same site (Lampson),” said Affholter. “It’s just the way it is.”
“A field is a field at the end of the day,” said lineman Baylor McElroy. “Yeah, you put the gear in your car, it smells your car up. But a lot of guys had teachers who felt comfortable enough for them to leave their gear in their classroom.”
“We’ve been pretty good about it,” said quarterback Blaine Chavez. “We focus on what we can do. We know other teams don’t have to deal with this stuff.”
Defensive lineman Jagger Childs agrees. “The key to this season, I’d say, is we’ve just stayed focused on what we can do, and not worry about the things we can’t control.”
This involves everyone in the Kennewick football program.
“We played every late night junior varsity game on Mondays,” said Affholter. “Then we had those kids, worn out, play the scout team for us. Those kids are tired.”
The act of those younger kids does not go unnoticed.
“We definitely would not be as good as we are without those guys,” said Chavez. “We were there as freshmen and sophomores. So we know what they were going through. They are more of the respected guys on our team.”
Everyone, in other words, is in this together. Start with classes.
Baylor McElroy and his twin brother Baiden, have the same class schedule. It starts with a class in the Fruitland building. But then they have to walk around the construction site to the 400 Hall for calculus.
“I can’t be to class on time,” says Baylor. “I can’t imagine how many miles I put in going to class (each week). What are you gonna do when your whole school is under construction?”
Baiden agrees, then adds everybody is in the same situation. “But this had made us all closer.”
And it started last spring.
“I’ll be honest with you, when I took the job, I honestly felt with this group of kids we had, we had a shot at this,” said Affholter. “The question was, being the new guy, would they buy into the culture, would they buy into our offensive and defensive schemes?”
The players, at first, didn’t know what to think of the new guy.
Childs said everyone felt they had the right talent.“We thought, as freshmen, we could do something big,” he said. “We did pretty well last year. But this is our last chance to do something.”
Senior linebacker Kaleb Stevenson was impressed quickly with Affholter.
“We knew we were gonna be pretty good,” said Stevenson. “We didn’t how things would turn out with a new coach. But Coach Affholter is super organized. He always has a plan.”
It started with well-organized practices, set down to the minute.
“We have a goal to get a certain amount of plays done in a certain amount of time,” said Baiden McElroy. “Some people struggled with it at first.”
But gradually everyone got better, and got on the same page.
“The key was first thing we had to adapt to (Affholter’s offensive and defensive system),” said Chavez. “He made the system, pretty easy. After that, it was smooth sailing, and we trusted him.”
Then there was a bump in the road.
After a big 55-20 win over Pasco on Oct. 11, in which Chavez tossed six touchdown passes, Chavez had leg problems. It was an infection, something that first bothered him in eighth grade, and it has sidelined him ever since it re-occurred last month.
Affholter switched to Elijah Tanner at QB, and Kennewick has won all six games with him at the helm.
“The biggest thing is he’s not trying to do too much,” said Affholter. “Blaine has done a good job of being there for him for games.”
But Chavez deflect the praise.
“I’ve helped Elijah a little. But he’s mostly doing it himself,” said Chavez. “I try to do whatever I can to help the team.”
Tanner’s stepping into the QB has kept the Lions on a steady road.
“Elijah runs the offense pretty well, and he throws the ball well,” said Baiden McElroy. “But remember: He was at receiver, and was one of our top guys there. Then he moved to quarterback, and we lost a good receiver.”
So throw whatever you want to at these Lions. They can handle it. No outside distractions.
“I’ll probably remember all of the guys, all of the work we put in together. All of the adversity we had to overcome,” said Chavez.
Maybe just one regret? “It is annoying that we won’t get to be in the new high school,” said Baiden McElroy.
Then he stops. “But the juniors have it worse, because they’ll have two years of this.”
Affholter said O’Dea’s biggest strength is its offensive and defensive lines.
“They are big. That’s the area we’ve got to control. That is key,” he said. “They like to play a possession-type of offense. We’ve got to get some quick 3-and-outs on defense, and some turnovers.”
A team like that, he says, “if we can get up on them early, and basically make them play catch-up, we can get them.”