by: THE OUTLOOK: DAVID BALL - Reynolds players Kanyon Flynn, Hutu Spencer, Josh Schleining, Jon Reinhart, J.J. Hawkinson and Quentin Bates have sparked a turnaround in the football program, which has reached the big-school state playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The Raiders travel to No. 7 North Medford for a first-round game tonight. Friday night football games mean many things to middle school students. Yes, it’s a time to stay up late, hang out with friends and raid the snack shack. For some, it’s also a chance to watch your heroes play.

But at Reynolds High it wasn’t a fairytale — the heroes lost too often.

From 2005-2009, the Raiders went a collective 14-35 (.286) and endured losses by as many as 58 points along the way.

But this year’s senior class never got discouraged. They looked into the crystal ball and saw themselves winning games when it was their turn to take the field. In 2008, the Raiders varsity was struggling through a one-win season. Meanwhile on Saturday afternoons, this core group of seventh-graders had wrapped up an undefeated year with the Walt Morey Mustangs.

“In middle school those Friday nights are all we would talk about,” Hutu Spencer says. “We saw each other playing out there one day. We always wanted to be the group that turned the program around.”

• That turnaround was going to be in full gear in 2012, but running back Hutu Spencer couldn’t play a part. Friday nights that season were more frustration than joy. He suffered a dislocated shoulder during spring drills and underwent a pair of surgeries just weeks before the season. Doctors advised against playing football again.

That wasn’t an option.

“That only made me work harder to get back,” Hutu says. “Missing a year of football just standing on the sidelines was really hard.”

So that meant he worked out — really hard. He met good friend and Raiders QB Josh Schleining for early-morning sessions in the weight room.

Hutu regained his strength and added some more. He’s become the team’s main option out of the backfield.

He finished fourth on the league rushing list with 863 yards and 13 TDs. But he led the league in bruises put on would-be tacklers.

Bringing Hutu to the turf is like trying to stop a boulder as it tumbles down a mountain. Your best option is to just get out of the way.

Needing a win in this year’s regular-season finale against Barlow, the Raiders found themselves clinging to a seven-point lead late in the third quarter. Hutu made it clear that his team was not losing on this night when he took the handoff and went off tackle. A Barlow linebacker was waiting for him. Hutu changed course slightly, ran straight at the tackler and stampeded over him. In the jumble of body parts, Hutu eventually went down for a modest 7-yard gain.

“The guy has him dead to rights, but Hutu lowers his shoulder and knocks the guy back three yards,” Reynolds head coach Dustin Janz said. “He makes guys pay for tackling him.”

The Raiders next play was a 60-yard touchdown catch by Isaiah Reyes-Johnson to put the team in command 35-21.

The win was in hand. A state playoff berth secured.

Despite all the success of their middle school years, stepping up to varsity was a whole new challenge. The group had high hopes coming into their sophomore season, putting on the green jerseys for the first time. But this was still a pack of 15-year olds taking on teams stacked with 18-year olds. The Raiders found themselves outsized and the young lineup was adjusting to how fast the game was played under the lights.

A defensive end closing in from the blind side came much quicker. Instead of running away and making a throw from the sideline, you got a helmet in the back and a turnover.

The Raiders were winless in league that year, dropping three games by 55 points or more. This was not what the group had envisioned a few years earlier while munching popcorn in the grandstands.

But the 2011 season would show signs of success to come when the Raiders pulled out a 37-36 win on the road against North Salem in the qualifier round, landing Reynolds a spot in the state playoffs.

• While the team was showing signs of potential, so was two-way player Kanyon Flynn. A year younger than the rest of the guys, Flynn was a rookie trying to prove he deserved a spot with the Friday night crew.

It only took him one play.

It was the third game of the season when he found his way onto the field. The play called for him to run a post route — sprint down the sideline and cut inside in the direction of the goal post. QB Sal Orozco found him open over the middle and 50 yards later Kanyon had his first catch and his first touchdown.

“I thought I might blackout, it was a really cool experience,” Kanyon says. “I turned around and all my teammates were running at me to celebrate.”

Kanyon remains a reliable target in the passing game, largely as a move-the-chains receiver on third downs. But he has made his biggest mark on the defensive side where he led the league with eight interceptions this season. That includes a pick-six during a win over McKay, and a pair of fourth-quarter picks that secured a late-season win over Gresham.

“He’s made some big plays in some big situations, giving us the ball back to finish off some wins,” Janz said.

By their junior season the team was ready to turn the tide. It was time to fill up the win column. Under the direction of coach Sean VanDeMerghel and his pass-heavy attack, the Raiders were lighting up the scoreboard. Reynolds surpassed 50 points twice and was 3-1 through the preseason, including a 28-19 win over traditional power Clackamas.

The Raiders suffered a pair of close losses in league play that set up a crucial test in the regular-season finale against Barlow. The winner would make the playoffs, while the loser would fall into the qualifier games.

This was the kind of pressure that would sink past Reynolds teams. And this game didn’t start much different. A pair of early interceptions left the Raiders heading into halftime down 14-0.

But this group wasn’t going to quit.

Schleining overcame the two early picks and finished the night 26 for 41 with 342 yards and four TDs — all coming in the second half. Reynolds won 28-21 and found itself in the playoffs, again.

“It was like a relief after working so hard to accomplish that,” Jon Reinhart says. “Now, we were old enough to compete.”

• Josh Schleining was excited to put together a big game on Senior Night against Gresham High. Not only were he and his classmates being honored, but it was also a must-win if the team wanted to stay in the playoff hunt.

He could barely hold back his excitement when he heard the play call to start the game. Four receivers lined up and everyone was going deep. No matter who got open, Josh knew he was seconds away from firing a long bomb downfield.

He just didn’t know how long.

“I saw the defensive back had his back turned, so I knew I’d had to get a little extra on it for Kanyon (Flynn) to make a play on it,” Josh says. “I thought I had waited too long to make the throw, but I launched it out there 60 yards and he caught it. I didn’t know I could throw it that far.”

Schleining walked into a dream system for a QB. VanDeMerghel, the head coach at the time, preferred spread formations with plenty of options in the passing game. If the first three receivers were covered, it was the QB’s job to find the next guy.

Hand-offs were used to surprise the defense. In this scheme, the passer was asked to pass and pass often.

Schleining topped the league passing charts his first two years, and it wasn’t close. Going over 300 yards? Tossing four or five touchdowns? That became routine.

Then came the coaching change.

The Raiders brought in Dustin Janz — a former college offensive lineman. And passing the ball wasn’t the only thing on his agenda.

“I could tell he was nervous when he first met me, wondering what the offense would be,” Janz says. “It was a matter of him understanding how a balance of run and pass can help each other out. Now, his favorite play is Carolina — a run option.”

Josh remains the general on the field and his numbers are as impressive as always. He led the league once again with 2,304 yards through the air to go along with a .614 completion rate and an impressive 23-6 TD-to-interception ratio. He also ranks among the top 10 rushers in the league with 678 yards on the ground and six trips to the end zone.

“I don’t go out thinking about passing for 400 yards, I’m thinking about winning the game,” Josh says. “It’s more about my brothers than myself.”

It took his brothers awhile to make the adjustment to a more balanced attack, as well. Now, instead of being asked to run routes and score TDs, receivers Kanyon Flynn and Quentin Bates were required to find a tackler and block.

“Honestly, we had some growing up to do,” Flynn says. “We’re used to getting the ball every other play, and now you want us to block? We had to learn that this is how things are, and we had to think of the team first.”

This fall is the season that the group had been pointing to for years. Back-to-back trips to the playoffs had started to turn the ship, but no one wanted to go off course in their final year together.

The season started with back-to-back losses before the team got on track with a 75-55 win at McKay — the most combined points scored in a 6A game this season.

The Raiders ended the preseason with a 31-point defeat at home against Clackamas. A 1-3 start and it was up to the seniors to rally the troops. And they needed to rally in a hurry because top-ranked Central Catholic was next on the schedule.

“We came in overconfident,” Hawkinson said. “Once we got into league, we realized we needed to get it done in practice if we were going to play well Friday night.”

• No one has been called to a greater role of leadership this season than lineman Jon Reinhart, who is operating up front with a unit that includes two sophomores and two juniors only one of which had played on the line before.

“Jon is a lead by example guy, but anytime Jon is around those other guys aren’t far behind whether it’s in the weight room or in the lunch room,” Janz said.

With a greater emphasis on the running game this season, the line plays a key role in those clock-killing drives late in the game. Over the last half of the season, Janz has challenged his line to produce touchdowns whenever the team enters the red zone (inside the 20-yard line).

“We recognize those situations when we need to get yards, and we’re pushing people back and not giving ground,” Jon says.

The league opener — Sept. 27 at Central Catholic.

This is the game that most teams concede as a loss before they walk onto the field. The Rams are always tough, and this year they are more talented than ever. Central rolled through early-season wins over powers Sheldon, Lake Oswego and Jesuit and enters this week’s playoffs at 9-0 putting up an average of 54 points per game.

So how was Reynolds supposed to keep pace?

Well, their defense showed up and held the Rams to two touchdowns below their average, and midway through the third quarter Reynolds was still hanging close.

“There we were with a chance to get within seven in the third quarter and we have an unfortunate fumble,” Janz said. “But our kids really put up a fight, and after that they believed they could compete with anyone.”

The night ended with a 41-14 loss, but it was the biggest challenge Central faced in league this season.

“It ended in a loss, but we played one of our best games that night,” Hutu Spencer says.

• Opposing coaches want nothing to do with Raiders defensive back J.J. Hawkinson. After leading the league in interceptions as a junior, he has gone largely unchallenged this fall — basically closing down an area of the field by his presence alone.

“J.J. is phenomenal, just a tough guy,” Janz said. “He does everything you need him to do, and he is perfect when it comes to drills in practice and that carries over onto the field. It’s hard to get anything on him.”

With teams not throwing often in his direction, J.J. has been able to play up and become a factor in shutting down the running game, often waiting on the edge to bring down ball carriers for short gains.

The team also uses him as a weapon on offense, usually swinging out of the backfield to give Schleining and option when the defense is playing deep.

“He catches a short 5-yard hitch route, breaks a tackle and goes down the sideline to score,” Janz said. “He’s done that in some big situations for us.”

J.J. ranks third in the league with 28 catches for 359 yards.

Sitting at 1-4 at midseason was not acceptable. If this group was going to end its prep careers with a playoff game, they had to turn the tide, and it had to happen now.

The Raiders would do just that by winning three of its next four games, including a 55-34 win over Gresham.

This was going to be a walkover. The Raiders went into the locker room 20 points up on the Gophers. It was time to celebrate.

But then Gresham came out for the second half and turned a pair of onside kicks into trips to the end zone. Within a matter of minutes, the comfortable cushion had vanished.

The party was over.

A Reynolds fumble gave Gresham the ball near midfield, and now the Gophers were closing in on a go-ahead score after driving inside the 10-yard line.

In years past, this might signal a collapse on the Reynolds sideline.

Not this time.

Reynolds linebacker Brad Smith burst through the middle and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Aidan Dois and taken nearly the length of the field. The Raiders would score a few plays later, get a quick stop on defense and set the stage for receiver Quentin Bates.

• Quentin Bates has a presence on the football field. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, he’s a size bigger and a step faster than everyone else. That showed itself late in the third quarter against Gresham when Schleining spotted him over the middle for a first down, but Quentin wasn’t done.

He spun out of a tackle in the middle of the field and flashed down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. Reynolds had its 20-point lead back and this time, the team could celebrate.

“Teams look to take him away, but so far no one’s been able to do it,” Janz said. “He’s been a huge game-changer for us. He just finds ways to get open. You’ll see a play break down, and he and Josh will make the adjustment on the fly.”

Quentin led the league in receiving with 40 catches for 873 yards, almost double the total of anyone else, with 12 of those grabs finding the end zone.

The Raiders went on to win 55-34, setting up a showdown with Barlow in the final week with a playoff trip on the line.

For the second straight year, a trip to the playoffs required a win in the finale over Barlow. Once again, the Raiders found themselves in a battle deadlocked 21-21 midway through the third quarter. And once again, Reynolds responded.

Schleining fired a pair of long TD passes to Bates and to Isaiah Reyes-Johnson to put the Raiders well on their way to a 42-28 win.

The core group of Raiders made it official — three varsity seasons and three trips to the playoffs. Their final postseason quest gets under way 7 p.m. Friday at No. 7-ranked North Medford.

“This group has shown how to overcome adversity and that we can be a successful program here long term,” Janz said.

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