By CONOR NICHOLL
KENSINGTON -- The Kensington-Thunder Ridge High School football team defeated Weskan, 58-12, in the first round of the Eight-Man Division II playoffs on Tuesday night. The Longhorns played well in all three phases, but three plays helped illustrate Thunder Ridge's elite talent from its three returning starters and host of first-year starters.
With 49 seconds left in the first quarter, sophomore tailback Trent Rietzke collected a handoff from junior quarterback Garrett Krueger and bounced outside.
Krueger received blocks from senior fullback Trevor Lowe and junior lineman Benton Hrabe and scored on a 10-yard run. The TD pushed Thunder Ridge's lead to 20-6.
On the kickoff, Weskan returned the ball down the right side to the 22-yard line. After he kicked off, Krueger ran all the way down the field and made the tackle -- a play not normally made by the kicker in the eight-man ranks.
With 7:10 remaining in the first half, Lowe, long known for his punishing, low-to-the-ground running style, burst in on a 2-point conversion to push the lead to 28-6. Lowe blasted over Weskan senior Brandan Escamilla, the Coyotes' third-leading tackler. The crack and pop was heard throughout the stadium and Escamilla was a little slow to recover. Several fans adjacent to the goal line called Lowe "a freight train."
The victory moved Thunder Ridge, ranked No. 5 in the statewide media poll, to 9-1 despite replacing all but two offensive and defensive starters from last year's 13-0 team that won the state championship. The Longhorns have won nine straight by at least 34 points.
"We lost so much," veteran coach Jerry Voorhees said. "A great senior class last year, but success seems to breed success sometimes and I think we've had more kids out this year than I think we have ever had.
"Obviously we lost a bunch to injury," he added. "But we are getting some more kids who want to play and want to come out and be a part of our team, and obviously that's helped out. Kids have just stepped up and done a great job. Worked so hard in the summer in the weight room and really come out and done a nice job."
On Saturday, Thunder Ridge travels to Otis-Bison, ranked No. 4 in the classification at 9-1, for the second round of the playoffs. This marks the third time in the last two years the squads have met up. Last year, Thunder Ridge won 44-18 in Week 4 and then earned a 54-26 win in the sub-state. Both squads have similar styles - ground-and-pound attacks and physical, aggressive defenses. Senior Dylan Wissman leads the Cougars with 1,798 yards and 40 rushing scores.
"I think it's going to be a very physical football game," Voorhees said. "Obviously, we know they are very big up front. The Wissman kid has obviously put on weight, great back. Probably the best back in the state. We are going to have to find some way to try to slow him down."
When the season started, Thunder Ridge brought back just three returning starters: senior lineman Kade Dennis, a two-way starter last year, Lowe at fullback and Krueger, a starting linebacker as a sophomore. Krueger took over at quarterback in early season. Hrabe, a talented player last year, inherited a spot on the line. Thunder Ridge has outscored opponents 526-128 and ranks in the top-three in the classification in scoring offense and defense, according to preppowerindex.com. Lowe said he hasn't noticed that much difference running behind a newer line this year compared to last fall's season-laden group.
"He is definitely really good," Lowe said. "He knows what he is doing and he is really smart. If like other guys have questions, they usually ask him. He knows pretty much the whole line's scheme, what they are doing."
Many times Tuesday, Hrabe pulled to the left and made a big block to help spring a run.
"He has done a real nice job for us," Voorhees said. "We really thought that he probably could have started for a lot of teams last year. He just had those real good seniors in front of him. We were looking for good things from him this year, and he has done a real nice job."
Krueger has an unorthodox throwing motion and releases the ball in a sidearm/three-quarters slot. However, he has capably filled in at quarterback. In Thunder Ridge's power-I scheme, the quarterback isn't expected to make a lot of plays -- but is expected to make them when called upon. '
"I definitely like watching him run, because he will juke them out," Lowe said. "But he is getting a lot better at passing, so that's good, too."
Krueger has ran well and completed 32 of 43 passes with eight scores. He was 2 of 5 for 33 yards on Tuesday.
"Great leader for us," Voorhees said. "Has got a lot of faith and trust in him, makes great decisions, he really doesn't put the ball places very often where they shouldn't be. If it's not there, he will pull it down and run it. He is not the fastest kid, but he is very elusive and makes good decisions out there. He has done a good job for us."
Krueger, who started as linebacker as a sophomore, collected 77 tackles last year, fourth-most on the squad. He made big plays on defense Tuesday, including a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
"Very, very knowledgeable football player," Voorhees said. "Has just got a great football instinct. Knows where the ball is. Just a great leader for us on defense. He is always asking questions, he gets us lined up. He is a good football player."
The backfield has still produced, mainly behind Lowe and Rietzke. Last year, Lowe rushed for 695 yards and 14 scores, while Rietzke tacked on 63 yards and a TD. This year, Lowe has 130 carries for 1,195 yards and 22 TDs, while Rietzke has 104 carries for 608 yards and 16 scores.
"He has done a nice job," Voorhees said of Rietzke. "It has been tough getting a whole lot of carries for him, because we have been in some lopsided games, but he has really stepped up, done a nice job for us."