High School Sports

Kennedy Catholic has revamped its defense. Is this the final piece the Lancers need to contend for a 4A title?

Sav’ell Smalls during Kennedy Catholic High School football practice at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Wash., on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Sav’ell Smalls during Kennedy Catholic High School football practice at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Wash., on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Kennedy Catholic High School has one of the most polished offenses in the state. Five-star junior quarterback Sam Huard, who committed to Washington last November, will even go as far to put the Lancers’ punishing Air Raid up against any other offensive attack in the country.

It’s no secret Kennedy — which averaged 49.7 points per game last season, leading all teams in Class 4A — can score quick, and score in bunches. There’s been little question about that since Huard and a talented group of Division-I bound receivers started flying around the football field as freshmen two seasons ago.

“We know it’s fun to score a lot of points,” Kennedy coach Sheldon Cross said. “We don’t plan to change that.”

But, Cross, in his fourth season with the program, is also well aware of the question that has surrounded the Lancers the past few seasons.

Kennedy’s offense can hold its own in a shootout with anyone, but can the program put a sturdy enough defense on the field to turn them into a true 4A state title contender?

“We know the narrative, and we know where we were deficient, and we have addressed where we needed to get better,” Cross said.

The Lancers, who finished 6-4 last season, scored the most points of any team in 4A that didn’t advance to the state playoffs. But, their 380 points allowed in 10 games was also the sixth-most in 4A, and most of any team with a winning record.

They scored 48 points in a loss to 4A NPSL Mountain rival Enumclaw last season in a pivotal divisional matchup that came down to the final minute, and 36 in their only other division loss to Kentwood three weeks later.

A year later, how do those crucial losses — which eventually sent Kennedy on the road for a district-round meeting with eventual state semifinalist Puyallup last winter — turn into wins?

“We’ve known that we need to be good on defense,” Cross said. “We’ve spent an entire offseason focusing completely on that. … For the first time, we have bigger, older, really good football players that are on defense.

“Now, when you see us lining up, it’s a different animal. We look big. We’re stronger and more confident. There’s a swagger about our defense now that hasn’t been there.”

Kennedy returns every starter on defense, has more options on the bench that also have starting experience, and is boasting one of its biggest turnouts in 2019.

Returners like senior defensive end Jahviaus Leui, a four-year starter, junior defensive lineman George Klewin, junior linebacker Shane Aleaga and sophomore defensive back Kieran Collins will anchor a defense that Cross said has benefited from an extensive strength and conditioning program during the offseason.

Plus, the Lancers will get another big boost at their other defensive end spot from five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls, who transferred back to Kennedy — where he spent his freshman season — after two years at Garfield.

Smalls is a two-time TNT all-state pick who received scholarship offers from 31 Division I programs before trimming his list of potential schools to six — Alabama, Florida State, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and Washington State — earlier this month.

“He’s a great leader and he wants to be on a great football team,” Cross said. “The best part about it is, he was there as a freshman for us, so he saw where the program was.”

“It feels good to finish what I started,” said Smalls, who recalled starting his freshman season opposite Leui. “We’re in the driver’s seat (now as upperclassmen), and we’re the leaders. We just want to do it our way, and make sure it’s the good way.”

Smalls said there is noticeably more depth in the defense this season, compared to his last year with the program, and working as a team in the weight room ahead of this season has made a substantial difference.

And, in addition to offering physicality on the field — he still managed 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season, despite playing only five games for Garfield due to a sprained PCL in his left knee — Smalls hopes to offer leadership to his teammates.

“He’s going to be making plays, but the best thing about Sav’ell is he lifts everyone else on that defense up, and he brings the most out of all of these guys,” Huard said. “He’s a great leader, and he’s done a great job so far. I know he’ll be consistent all year with that.

“That’s going to be a big difference, along with everyone just getting better, and older and stronger, too.”

Huard said the defense he opposes in practice has “without a doubt” improved. And, it seems to be the final piece of what the Lancers need to contend for their first state championship.

“There’s definitely a different energy and a better vibe here,” Huard said. “We expect a lot this year. We’ve all worked really hard.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.