Derek Hart’s first win as Kankakee’s coach wasn’t a game on the schedule.
He had to win over a team — particularly a group of seniors who longed for a coach who was surprisingly fired after four seasons.
“I didn’t want to change everything,” Hart said. “But I knew some things had to be changed. ... And we came in right away; we set boundaries, we put the offseason program together.
“Some of those senior leaders took ownership of that and it kind of took off from there.”
The Kays (8-1), have reached the state playoffs for the first time since 2016. They will host Peoria Notre Dame this weekend in a Class 5A first round game.
“It was just the way he presented himself,” senior running back Mattias Clark said. “The playbook and everything just seemed more clear.”
Hart, who joined Kankakee from Indiana’s Brownsburg High School, said the team had a sense of urgency that was the catalyst to the surprising start to the season.
“I don’t think it was a really specific moment, Hart said. “I just think that the group as a whole — the senior class — kind of came together and said, ‘Hey, this is our last go-around; this is our last chance. Let’s buy into what they’re doing and what they’re telling us.’
“And it’s obviously paying off because it seemed that the group bought into what we’re talking about when we came in right away — the offseason workouts, all that stuff.
“It just kind of snowballed into where we are now.”
And it seems once the senior leadership bought in, the rest of the team fell in line.
The Kays, who are in second place in the Southland Athletic Conference, are powered by their defense, nicknamed “The Dark Side,” a unit that had held opponents to 26 rushing yards in the first seven games.
That defense is also responsible for three shutouts. Bloom, the Kays’ Oct. 11 opponent, had minus-79 rushing yards.
“Everything vicious,” senior cornerback Kesean Williams said. “No one is scoring. Everyone is laying wood.”
Many of the players insisted that one of the main differences in this season is the team is scoring more points on offense and defense.
“We’re more disciplined than last year,” senior linebacker Chuck Weathersby said. “[Hart] stays on top of our grades and he’s open with us.”
After a four-win season last year and three victories the year before that, some in town have been skeptical.
Nevertheless, the Kays seem to answer any skepticism by piling up impressive victories.
“We still have a couple of haters, which is cool, but we just here to prove the doubters wrong,” senior receiver Chatavion Spivery said. “We just go out there and take care of business and leave it all on the field.”