As one of the stronger football programs in the area, Pennfield has had several seasons where the Panthers began the year with goals of winning league and district titles.
But many people doubted if the 2013 team would be one of those squads.
Which makes it that much sweeter as Pennfield added a district championship to the Kalamazoo Valley Association crown it had already won, making 2013 a banner season already.
Pennfield defeated Dowagiac, 35-21, in this Division 4 district championship game at Pennfield High School on Friday. Pennfield (10-1) advances to face Grand Rapids South Christian (10-1) in a regional next week.
“If you had told me at the beginning of the year we’d be doing this, I would have said you were crazy. I never saw this coming,” Pennfield senior quarterback Jake Grimes said. “But we turned into a tough team, the coaches did a great job with us, and we came a long way and today we are district champs.”
It is the first district championship for Pennfield since 2011 and only the second since 2003.
“Our kids were on a mission tonight to win on this field and win a district championship,” Pennfield coach Nick Koenigsknecht said. “We showed them a little bit of the film from two years ago when our kids beat Sexton in a great ball game to win a district championship and they fed off of that.
“There’s a thing called tradition and these kids wanted to put their name up there, too. After the game, just now, we just told them to soak it up, enjoy it and know that we are district champions.”
Pennfield dominated this contest from the start, taking advantage of an early miscue by Dowagiac. After the Panthers stopped the Chieftains on third down on their first possession, Dowagiac had a poor snap on the punt and Nathan Behnke and Tyler Kipp tackled the punter on the Pennfield 23.
Four plays later, Grimes put Pennfield on the board with a quarterback sneak from a yard out to make it 8-0 with 7:09 left in the first quarter.
Dowagiac responded with a 65-yard drive on eight plays that ended in a quarterback sneak from a yard out also as Austin Broda scored with 11:55 left in the half to pull within 8-7.
But Pennfield would score twice more before the half to take control.
Grimes found Dawan Smith for a 25-yard touchdown pass to make it 15-7 early in the second quarter. Then J.J. Clements finished off a 15-play, 75-yard drive by Pennfield with a touchdown run from two yards out to make it 22-7 with just :51 left before intermission.
In that first half, Dowagiac had minus-16 yards rushing.
That poor start by Dowagiac and Pennfield’s ability to control the line of scrimmage set the tone for the game.
“That’s not how we wanted the game to start, snapping it over the head of our punter,” Dowagiac coach Michael Stanger said. “Then after that, they took us out of the run game tonight. And when you don’t have the run game, that makes it tough. They controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage.”
Dowagiac showed signs of staying in the game, getting an interception on the first possession of the second half and turning that into points. The Chieftains scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Broda to Brandon Hatch with 2:55 left in the third quarter to pull within 22-13.
But Pennfield would score 13 unanswered points to put the game away.
Smith added a touchdown run from six yards out to give the Panthers a 29-13 lead with 11:06 left in the fourth quarter. Then Connor Clark scored from two yards out to make it 35-13 on a drive that was highlighted by an 83-yard run by Nick Burnett.
Dowagiac added a late touchdown on a 37-yard pass from Broda to Brody Froehlich to make the final score closer than the actual game.
Burnett led Pennfield with 154 yards rushing on 11 carries with Smith adding 69 yards and Clements coming up with 51.
On defense, Derek Lipps and Clements led Pennfield with nine tackles each with Ethan Everett adding two sacks.
With no room to run, Dowagiac went to the air as Broda finished with 285 yards passing on 14-of-24.
The win gives Pennfield five straight wins in the second half of the season, as the Panthers have come together after a 28-22 loss to Schoolcraft at the midway point.
“In the middle of the season, we had a really rough game against Schoolcraft where we didn’t play well and we weren’t sure about our football team,” Koenigsknecht said. “But the way our kids came back from that showed a lot of heart and that’s nice to see that rewarded.
“This was our senior’s last game on this field. Those seniors carried us, and now we have a KVA title and a district title and it feels pretty good.”