No. 10 Kankakee reloads for another shot at a state title

Steven Young took Kankakee’s loss to Fenwick in last season’s Class 5A state title game hard.

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Kankakee’s Tony Phillips catches a pass during practice.

Kankakee’s Tony Phillips catches a pass during practice.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Steven Young took Kankakee’s loss to Fenwick in last season’s Class 5A state title game hard.

“I cried,” Young said. “For hours after that game just sitting in the hotel room. I didn’t think we played like we should.”

Young, a senior defensive lineman, believes the Kays took the Friars lightly.

“[Fenwick] didn’t beat Morgan Park as easily as we did so we thought we were better than them,” Young said. “We weren’t locked in. We came in with a cocky mindset and they showed us we weren’t who we thought we were.”

Derek Hart, Kankakee’s young coach, has changed the team’s culture and expectations. And he’s done it quickly. The Kays open the season at No. 10 in the preseason Super 25 rankings.

“I moved here in 2019 from Connecticut and heard the team was not good. The culture, the coaching, everything,” Young said. “It’s all turned around. People show up on time, we have team dinners. All that kind of stuff.”

Kankakee’s Steven Young tosses a ball back to a teammate during practice.

Kankakee’s Steven Young tosses a ball back to a teammate during practice.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

The Kays were 9-2 in 2019, Hart’s first season. They were 4-2 in spring 2021 and 13-1 last season. Kankakee was an afterthought in football before he arrived.

“Each year we’ve taken a step forward as a culture,” Hart said. “My coaching staff has been tremendous. We’ve had continuity there. And the kids bought in. Obviously, you have to have the kids.”

Hart is trying to improve Kankakee’s youth football programs, but this is a turnaround built on the high school team.

The changes are attracting players. Tony Phillips, a dynamic junior running back, has transferred in from Bishop McNamara.

Senior Jyaire Hill (6-1, 170 pounds) is the Kays’ star. The defensive back is one of the state’s best athletes. He has 25 scholarship offers, including Auburn, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Kankakee has five starters returning on offense and seven on defense. Junior Larenz Walters takes over at quarterback. Walters is a talented athlete and played some in mop-up time last season. Hart believes he’s ready to step up. Walters has a pair of experienced receivers to target in senior Karson King and junior Quan McElroy.

With 12 starters back, the addition of Phillips and the return of Hill, Kankakee seems primed to make another run at the Class 5A state title. Hart isn’t shy about stating that as the goal for the season.

It’s interesting that Young believes Kankakee’s mindset wasn’t right for the final because the mental side of things may be a challenge during the regular season this year. The Kays have tough games to open the season against Nazareth and downstate Washington, but the rest of the schedule is weak until Week 9 at Crete-Monee.

“We didn’t play Rich last year and that’s a team that can compete with us,” Hart said. “But it is going to have to be a mission for the coaches throughout the middle of the season to keep the kids involved and make sure we’re getting better.”

The bitter taste from last season’s state championship game should help the team hold focus. There’s also the allure of being the first group from Kankakee to ever win a football state championship.

“It would be incredible to do something that has never happened before,” Hart said. “It would change things for the next 10 years or longer. It would change what everyone believed was possible around here.”

Kankakee’s schedule

Aug. 26 at Nazareth
Sept. 2 vs. Washington
Sep. 9 at Thornridge
Sep. 16 vs. Peoria Manual
Sep. 23 vs. Thornwood
Sep. 30 vs. Rich
Oct. 8 at Bloom
Oct. 14 vs. Thornton
Oct. 21 at Crete-Monee

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