Northern Valley changes defense, earns signature win

Artwork by Joe Wachter,
By: Conor Nicholl for
Oct 17, 2017

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Entering this fall, Northern Valley had delivered four straight winning seasons before posting 3-6 and 4-5 marks the last two years.

Even though the Huskies have routinely posted strong offensive numbers, Northern Valley had not made the playoffs since 2005 under Chuck Fessenden, the coach for more than 40 years.

Northern Valley has struggled the last several seasons defensively and has played in challenging districts with the likes of Victoria, Beloit St. John’s-Tipton and Thunder Ridge. This year, the Huskies opened 1-1 and permitted 112 points, including a 70-14 loss in Week 2 against rival Logan-Palco.

The Huskies trailed 28-0 early against Logan-Palco after they fumbled the opening kickoff, had an interception, and allowed two big plays to Trojan all-state running back David Thompson, including a punt return score.

Northern Valley had mainly used a 3-3 stack and incorporated a 4-3 against the Trojans. Then, the Huskies changed to a 3-2 look.

The Huskies are 4-1 and have permitted just 42 points since.

“We started getting better,” Fessenden said. “We switched defenses and that helped us quite a bit.”

Last Friday, Northern Valley earned a signature victory and moved close to the postseason with a 46-6 home win against previously undefeated Sylvan-Lucas.

“We played defense pretty well,” Fessenden said. “We’ve improved here quite a bit during the season on the defensive side.”

Sylvan-Lucas had tallied at 46 points in the first six contests of 2017 and ended a 17-game run of at least 34 points. It tied the fewest points for the Mustangs since a 46-0 loss to Solomon in Week 4 of 2012.

 “Chuck does a great job, and they have a lot of nice kids that fit what he wants to do,” Sylvan-Lucas coach Ben Labertew said. “They’ve got kids that do their job well.”

Northern Valley stands at 5-2, 3-0 in Eight-Man, Division II, District 5 with a road contest versus Stockton (1-6, 1-2) and home against Thunder Ridge (2-5, 2-1). Sylvan-Lucas remains in the runner-up spot at 6-1, 2-1. Stockton won the district in ’16 and has faced some injuries this fall.

“Of course we’ve got two more to go here, but we’ve kind of got a leg up in the district right now,” Fessenden said. “Yeah, it’s a pretty good feeling to get there. We’ve had some decent teams in the years past here, but we’ve just got in a real tough district.”

The Huskies have three shutouts in the last five games, including back-to-back in Weeks 5 and 6.

It marked the first shutouts in a non-forfeit since a 54-0 win against Weskan in Week 6 of 2008. Last year, against the same schedule, Northern Valley held just one team under 40 points.

The new look allowed senior Caden Kinderknecht to roam the whole field as a safety, or “monster” back. Previously, Kinderknecht had been one of the outside linebackers.

“He was only on one side of the field,” Fessenden said. “It was a little harder for him to cover both sides of the field.”

Also a three-year starter at quarterback and one of the Huskies’ top statistical players in Fessenden’s tenure, Kinderknecht has averaged 13.4 tackles a contest in the last five games.

Including last week, he’s had two 19-tackle performances to set a career high. Juniors Nick Stutsman and Caden Bach have played linebacker, which helps in the 3-2. The Huskies have an average scoring margin of 43-22.

Since 2011, the Huskies have tallied at least 36.4 points in every season except one. This season and a 7-2 year in 2012 (22.4 points allowed a contest) are the only times in this stretch the Huskies had permitted fewer than 31 points a game.

“It just kind of depends on if you feel like you have got the two inside linebackers,” Fessenden said of the 3-2. “We hadn’t had them here for the past couple years, so we kind of gotten away from it, but we used to run it all the time.”

Kinderknecht leads with 82 stops, with Bach at 70 and Stutsman with 51 for the next-highest totals. Bach paces the Huskies with five interceptions. Fessenden has been especially pleased with the pass defense.

“Those kids are making quite a few plays now,” Fessenden said.

Six-foot, 198-pound junior Jesus Saenz, an accomplished punter/kicker, has recovered four fumbles at defensive end. Last season, he averaged 29.5 yards per punt. He is up to 34.3 this fall.

Kickoff-wise, he has 20 touchbacks on 46 attempts. In 2016, he was at 35.3 yards a kickoff and stands at 41.4 this fall. Saenz has done well with pooch kicking when needed.

“We can pick out a kid we want to kick it to, and he can kick it to that guy,” Fessenden said. “So he has done pretty good job kicking for us.”

Senior 6-4, 245-pounder Dawson Stevens has played nose guard with sophomore Fabian Loya (6-3, 199) at end. Loya was hurt in a Week 1 win against Alma (Neb.) and missed several weeks.

Against Wilson, Loya faced off against an inexperienced tight end and had 11 tackles and two fumble recoveries in a 68-0 road win in Week 6.

Juniors Ross Cole and Aidan Baird are cornerbacks.

Northern Valley has two seniors and seven juniors on a 21-player roster. The only major injury came to freshman Matthew Yost (leg). He played linebacker in the 3-3 and nose guard in the 3-2.

Northern Valley has been able to platoon on the offensive and defensive lines some, especially with its sophomores. Sophomores Gunner Yocum is at center and Alex VanPatten starts at right guard.

 “Over the last couple of years, a lot of it is just the kids have got older and more mature, because we were playing a lot of young kids last year, and our kids that are juniors have grown up quite a bit this last year,” Fessenden said. “They gained weight and got stronger.”

Fessenden stands at 283-138 in his career. Brad Cox and Marvin Gebhard, both Northern Valley graduates, are longtime assistants. Fessenden is also a math teacher and the boys’ basketball and track coach.

He ran the Midway-Denton offense for decades before changing to a shotgun look for Kinderknecht.

Northern Valley implemented the offense in ’15 and has used the look fully the last two falls. Fessenden said the last time the Huskies significantly used the shotgun came in its first trip to state in 1982 when Kyle Sides, now an assistant boys’ basketball and track coach and Buhler, played quarterback.

Under Fessenden, the Huskies won three state titles and finished runner-up four times, all from ’82-90.

This season, Kinderknecht has passed for 497 yards with an 8/5 TD/INT ratio. He has rushed for 920 yards and 13 scores. Stutsman is second with 662 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs, and Saenz has 243 receiving yards and six TDs.

As a junior, Kinderknecht ranked second in school history with 1,507 yards behind Shane Baird’s 1,573 yards in 1984. For his career, he has accounted for 55 career rushing scores, 30 passing TDs, 295 tackles and picked off eight passes.

“He does a real good job of reading the defense,” Fessenden said. “…Caden likes it because he is facing the line of scrimmage instead of in the Midway offense initially he has got his back to the line, and he can’t see what’s happening. He can kind of see the holes open up better.”

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