LACEY — In the beginning, River Ridge flashed a bit of speed and look ready to muddy the waters of the District IV playoff picture.
But, in the end, the Hawks simply couldn’t get Capital running backs Ryan Rieta or Connor Kennedy to the ground, and the pair powered – literally – the Cougars to a 38-14 2A Evergreen Conference victory and a spot in the playoffs in a game that meant everything to both teams’ seasons at South Sound Stadium on Friday night.
Capital now moves on to face Mark Morris on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
“They’re going to be well-coached and we’ll have to play a lot better than we did in the first half tonight,” said Capital coach J.D. Johnson after his team ultimately got rolling to pile up 440 rushing yards against the Hawks after trailing 14-7.
Chris Leiba put River Ridge on the board first just under four minutes into the game when he fielded a Capital punt on one hop and dashed 75 yards up the left sideline to make it 7-0.
Rieta, who would finish with 208 yards on 26 carries, and Kennedy, who went for 167 yards on 27 carries, did the heavy lifting for Capital (4-5 overall, 3-2 EvCo) as the Cougars quickly tied the score with an economical six-play, 57-yard drive – all on the ground.
Rieta set up a 4-yard TD run by Kennedy when he dashed 34 yards on a draw on the previous play.
But River Ridge (4-5, 1-4) wasn’t done. Lieba bounced off tacklers to return the ensuing kickoff 50 yards to the Capital 38. On a third-and-8 play, Hawks quarterback Kobe Key dropped back to pass, headed into the middle, then bounced outside for a 36-yard touchdown to put the Hawks back up, 14-7.
After that, Capital’s offensive line and running backs took over. The Cougars took the lead for good after a 12-play drive, all on the ground, that culminated in a 20-yard scoring jaunt by Kennedy and a two-point conversion pass from Cody Jenkins to Jakob Racimo to begin a string of 31 consecutive points for Capital.
Johnson knew going in the Cougars needed their two relentless junior running backs against a River Ridge team still alive for a playoff berth.
“The way they pick up yards after contact and just keep driving is the key to winning big games like this,” Johnson said. “They’ve both lettered since they were freshman, so we know what we’re going to get from them.”
A third junior running back also excelled for the Cougars. Jacob Johnson, no relation to the coach, set up one Capital touchdown with a 53-yard run and scored another himself from 34 yards out.