It is without question the most mundane part of a team’s practice: Special teams.
It’s an exercise usually reserved for the end of a grueling practice session when a player’s mind is more focused on heading home for the day rather than punt and kickoff coverages.
But Kennedy head coach Alex Vega puts a premium on his program’s special teams play, and last Friday night against New Utrecht, it reaped huge dividends.
The Knights blocked two New Utrecht punts, each leading to touchdowns, and the Kennedy defense held the Utes to just two second-half scores coming up with a huge goal line stand in the final minutes to post a 22-12 victory over the Brooklyn visitors.
“We work hard on our special teams,” said Vega, who is two games into his second stint as Kennedy head coach. “We explain to the team when we install our special teams that they will be directly responsible for at least three wins on the year. A lot of teams don’t coach up their special teams the way we think they should. So we felt like that was an advantage for us coming into the season because of the way we worked on it.
“We got a couple of opportunities to block punts, and we were able to capitalize on them.”
Kennedy’s first special-teams gem came midway through the first quarter when senior Gary Kennedy blocked New Utrecht’s second punt of the game. Alberto Olivo Aristy scooped up the loose ball and raced 35 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
When Karamogo Sylla ran in the two-point conversion, the Knights were up 8-0.
It didn’t take long for Kennedy’s special teams to strike again. When New Utrecht was forced to punt two possessions later, the Knights again blocked a punt — this time courtesy of Gregory Genross — which gave Kennedy a first-and-10 at the Utes’ 33-yard line.
Five plays later, Kennedy — make that Gary Kennedy — scampered in from nine yards out for a 14-0 lead with 2:32 to play before the half.
Kennedy’s touchdown run was just part of an all-around solid performance as he also rushed for 51 yards and recorded three tackles on defense, with one coming at a most opportune time.
“I just want to thank my coaches and my O-line, because if it wasn’t for my O-line, I never would have gotten those yards and that touchdown,” Kennedy said, before singling out offensive linemen Jose Rodriguez, Rafael Rodriguez, Aury Fernandez and Darrell Williams.
The Knights increased their lead to 22 points early in the third after Chris Boadi raced in from six yards out. It looked like Kennedy would coast from there, but the Utes — with a lot of help from an assortment of Kennedy penalties — scored two quick touchdowns to pull within 22-12 with 9:21 to play.
And when New Utrecht drove to the Knights’ one-yard line with just over three minutes left, a game thought to be a laugher had become a nail-biter.
But on a fourth-and goal from the Knights’ one-yard line, Kennedy’s defense rose to the occasion with Gary Kennedy helping stuff New Utrecht for no gain. The Knights took over on downs and the victory was secured.
“We saw that they liked to run inside a lot, so as soon as we saw they were at the goal line, I knew they were going to run inside again,” Kennedy said. “I recognized it and I filled the (running) gap, and that was the game.”
Despite recording the win, Vega was not pleased with the Knights’ second-half performance.
“I just didn’t like the sloppiness of the second half,” Vega said. “Those 12 points they scored, we basically gave them to them. We must have had something like 150 yards in penalties. It was very sloppy. I think some of the (penalty) flags were unfair, but it doesn’t matter. Like I tell my team, you’ve got to keep your composure no matter what, and we lost or composure a little bit in the second half.”
But all in all, there were more positives than negatives on the night for the Knights.
“The positives are we know we got guys who play hard for the entire game,” Vega said. “I love these kids because of their attitude and the fact that they are coachable. We’re going to win some games this year.”