When standout quarterback Jay Banyasz went down with an ankle injury during Columbia’s 35-10 win over Oberlin last Friday, the Raiders needed someone to take up the slack on offense.
That somebody turned out to be senior tailback Jacob Kleinhenz, who became the focal point of the offense, gaining 206 yards on 31 carries with three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion.
But ask Kleinhenz about his breakout performance and he’ll say he was simply doing his job.
“It wasn’t a big transition for me,” said Kleinhenz, who is also a three-year starting inside linebacker.
“I do get the football. But, obviously, Jay’s a great player and we use him as much as we can on offense, whether he’s running the ball or passing it. When he went down, I knew we were going to run the clock down.
“Jacob Viccarone can backup Jay, but he’s a sophomore and he’s going to be nervous. It just came down to where we weren’t having much of a hard time running against those guys, so we stuck with it and it worked out well.”
It’s that lunch-pail, team-first attitude that has endeared Kleinhenz to Columbia coach Jason Ward and the rest of the coaching staff.
“First and foremost, he’s leading our team in tackles right now and has led in tackles as a junior and a sophomore,” Ward said. “He’s a rock for us at inside linebacker for our defense. He’s the one who gets the calls and gets everyone lined up on our defense, and he does a great job of that.
“Secondly, he’s our starting tailback. When we get into situations like we did the other night, we can contract our offense and move the ball forward with Jacob. We know he’ll not only hit those holes hard, but he has the speed to break one as well. Aside from that, he doubles as a fullback when Jay’s running. He’s a real physical blocker.”
Ward said Kleinhenz’s blocking often goes unnoticed because of the ability of the offensive line.
“Our line gets a lot of credit, and it’s deserved, but he’s the unsung guy that helps Jay go,” Ward said. “He also helps in pass protection, picking up the blitzes and helping Jay get more time in the pocket to make the throws we need.
“When I say he’s a rock for our defense, he’s also rock solid as a teammate. He’s one of those guys that our guys know you can count on not just on every play but also in every practice rep. He’s on point on every practice rep he does and he’s on point at all times.”
Last season in a Week 2 win over Chippewa, Kleinhenz injured his ankle. After missing the rest of that game, he strapped on a brace, taped up the ankle and gritted out 10 more games, helping Columbia go 9-1, reach the postseason for the second time in three seasons and win their first playoff game.
“Our coaches always tell us that you only get at least 10 games a year guaranteed, so make the most of them,” Kleinhenz said. “I had to sit out the second half of the Chippewa game last year, but you want to play as long as you can and as much you can. You’re only in high school once, and I wanted to be there with my team. That’s what drove myself to keep playing and fight through it. And, in the end, it was definitely worth it.”
The fact Kleinhenz was able to lead the Raiders in tackles playing pretty much on one leg speaks volumes about his athletic ability.
“Last year was kind of a tough year for him after hurting his ankle early in the season,” Ward said. “He was never really 100 percent for us, but he did everything he could to not only not hurt our football team, but also to make plays as well. That definitely inspired our guys. …
“What he brings to the table for us is that physical mindset, and that rubs off on a lot of our guys. He’s that kind of contact guy, a physical force. At the point of attack, he’s pretty violent as well. He’s a guy that can line up for any team in the county and make plays. Plus, he’s got a big heart, a big-hearted kid.”
Kleinhenz had to take the basketball season off after playing as a freshman and sophomore because of his ankle, but he recovered in time to letter in baseball for the third straight year.
Of course, he’s a catcher.
“Everyone jokes that I only play catcher because I get to put pads on again,” Kleinhenz said. “But I like being vocal and leading my teams, and being the catcher is a lot like being the inside linebacker. You have to set the defense and make your team aware of the situations.”
Kleinhenz is a four-year letterman in football. As a freshman, he played on every special team as the Raiders went 9-1 and reached the playoffs. Even now, Kleinhenz still plays on the kickoff return team, serving as the lead blocker for Jesse Lambert.
“Jacob’s one of those kids that does not want to come off the field,” Ward said. “We’ve had a lot of success with Jesse Lambert returning kicks, and a big reason why is Jacob lines up right in front of him. He’s physical in that aspect as the lead blocker.”
Kleinhenz is happy in whatever role he’s called on to perform.
“I have no problem lead blocking for Jay,” he said. “He’s a great runner and a great passer. When I do get the ball, I have to take advantage of it. People have to respect both of us as runners, not just Jay, and I think that helps the offense out. It gives us a different dimension. People now have to account for both of us.”
The 7-0 Raiders continue their quest for their first unbeaten season and another Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division championship and Division V playoff berth tonight at Lutheran West. Kleinhenz said maintaining the playoff intensity from last year’s historic first home playoff game each week has been the key.
“Last year, we weren’t really expected to do what we did,” he said. “Toward the end of the season and the playoffs, we had targets on our backs. This year, we knew we were on basically every team’s schedule circled. We only lost five seniors and only two of them started, and we knew everyone was gunning for us. We wanted to keep that target on our back, and we’re doing a great job of that.
“When we were playing Northwestern, our coaches said, ‘Let’s make this a playoff-tempo week.’ It was a huge week. We take the pressure very well and we can handle it. We’ve still got to finish out the season strong and win every single week, but that’s definitely going to help us out because we respond to pressure very well.”