MANTENO — When Vincent Mkhwanazi took over the soccer program at Kankakee four years ago, he inherited a boys program that saw double-digit losses come more often than victories against some of the top competition in the area.

But Saturday showed just how far the Kays have come as a program in recent years, as they capped off a week of flexing their local muscle, culminating in a 2-0 victory against Manteno on Saturday afternoon in the Rivals Cup championship at Manteno, giving Kankakee its first-ever Rivals Cup trophy.

“It’s just so much fun as a team,” Kays senior and tournament MVP Julio Sanchez said. “Ever since [Mkhwanazi] came in my freshman year, we’ve just built on and on, and winning the Rivals Cup is one of those things that’s really big for the program.”

The tournament was the second major accomplishment the Kays made happen during the week, as they earned their first-ever All-City championship Monday, the day before Rivals Cup play began.

“I think they’re just enjoying the moment,” Mkhwanazi said. “It’s definitely something we’ve discussed in the past, how there are some accomplishments we haven’t had.

“It’s been a four-year project in the making, not one of those things that happened overnight,” he added. “The boys have been putting in time and getting better.”

Sanchez got the Kays on the board right around the halfway point of the first half when he cleaned up a loose ball inside the box to give the Kays a 1-0 lead and shifted the momentum in the process.

“We were all playing how we wanted, moving the ball around and having fun,” Sanchez said. “That goal definitely had a big impact on the team.”

Panthers coach Justin Emerson knew his team had to come out of the halftime break playing as though their hair was on fire with the 1-0 deficit they faced, particularly with the 30-minute halves that come with the Rivals Cup.

They took possession off the opening whistle and immediately worked their way down the pitch for their first of a handful of good looks in the first dozen or so minutes of the second half, but on the rare chance the Kays’ defense allowed a decent shot on target, Kevin Quinones was there to turn it away.

“The shorter games, people don’t realize but it makes a world of difference,” Emerson said. “There’s less time to get into rhythm, and we said if we want to get something out of this, we have to come out hot.

“I was really proud the first 10 to 12 minutes [of the second half] — we got a good look, just couldn’t put one in.”

As the Panthers continued to up the pressure, that also left room for Kankakee to slide deep into Manteno territory for their own clean looks, most of which were turned away by Panther keeper Andrew Heuring, who tallied nine saves in the title game.

“This was Andrew’s best game of the year by far,” Emerson said. “He kept us in it the second half; he just stood on his head, making save after save, and none of them were routine saves either.”

But the Kays finally got some late insurance in the closing minutes, when Humberto Baez made an uncontested dash toward the net and was able to fire one past Heuring to get the game to its final score and give the Kays their second historic achievement of the week, something Mkhwanazi isn’t sure his kids even realize at the moment.

“In terms of how big it is right now, they’re just enjoying the moments, but once all the emotions subside, they’ll be like, ‘Woah, this was really special,’” Mkhwanazi said.

Beecher takes 3rd

After nearly coming back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to Kankakee, Beecher bounced back from a 2-1 semifinal loss to the Kays on Saturday morning to best Herscher 3-1 in the tournament’s third-place game.

“This game was not the prettiest game of soccer, but when you play five games in a week and two on Saturday, you just want to come home with hardware,” Bobcats coach Dawn Compton said. “And we just did what we had to do to get that today.”

The Bobcats saw their 13-game winning streak come to an end with the semifinal loss to Kankakee. But, like the Panthers and Tigers, and several of their rivals in the Twin Valley Conference, Compton and the Bobcats know regional play is just around the corner, as the IHSA Class 1A brackets were released Friday.

“I think we know we can play with anybody if we stick to game plan,” Compton said. “There were times this week we were tested and got away from what were good at because we let outside factors get to us.

“Going forward, we just need to focus on blocking those factors out, just worrying about our team and playing good soccer.”

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.