KANKAKEE — Kankakee had the most inauspicious of starts when it took on Hope Academy on its home turf Friday when quarterback Tomele Staples and running back Demere Turner couldn’t make a clean exchange on a handoff and gave the Eagles possession in Kays territory and immediately marched to within feet of the goal line.
But when the Eagles mishandled a handoff of their own, Jyaire Hill was the man of opportunity to take the fumble back 99 yards for a touchdown. Hill scored on offense, defense and special teams, and Staples connected with Pierre Allen for three touchdowns in a seesaw affair that saw the Kays score the game’s first 35 points and eventually earn a 56-20 victory to improve to 3-0 on the season.
Hill’s touchdown was the start of a mammoth momentum change early in the game, as Staples capped off the Kays’ first full drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Karson King and twin 10-yard scores to Allen to make it a 28-0 game just 5 seconds into the second quarter.
After an ensuing three-and-out from the Eagles, Hill initially muffed a punt return before picking it up and catching a few key blocks, including the final push from Marques Covington, to break free for a 53-yard punt return touchdown with 9:37 left in the half.
Special teams wound up being a net negative for the Kays, all thanks to Hope’s Ryan Williams, who returned the next kickoff 90 yards for a score, and then blocked a Kankakee punt on the next possession before scooping it up and walking in from a few yards out to make it a 35-14 game exactly 2 minutes after Hill’s game-breaking punt return.
“It’s extremely important and it’s been a problem for us in the past,” Kays coach Derek Hart said of the team’s special teams woes. “It’s gonna be a big focus for us going into next week.”
After both teams went scoreless the last 7 minutes of the half, the Kays forced another three-and-out and gave the ball back to an offense that had started hot before cooling off.
That’s when Hill was inserted into the game at running back, where he immediately churned out a 20-yard gain and eventually found the endzone again on a nine-yard rushing score to make it a 42-20 game halfway through the third.
“Coach [Hart] told me to do the best I can, and we needed a touchdown,” Hill said. “I had to get the team up and now that we’re ranked No. 2 [in the AP Class 6A poll], people expect big things.”
Hart said that after the offense began to sputter toward the end of the first half, he knew he had a more-than-capable playmaker in Hill who could help flip the script.
“We stalled in the second quarter offensively, so we came out of the half and gave him the rock a couple times,” Hart said. “He changed the whole momentum of the game.”
From there on out, the Kays regained their early death grip on the game, as Nate Hill found paydirt from two yards out and Staples and Allen connected for a third time from four yards out to reach the game’s final score.
“We just came out with a lot more energy,” Hart said. “We got up big early, got comfortable and then came into the second half with energy.
“The defense played well and got a stop early, and we just went from there.”
Covington led that defensive charge, recording three of the 10 total sacks the Kays had on the evening. Jayden Villagomez and Angel Andrade each had 2.5 sacks.
Staples finished the night 12-for-18 for 100 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Nate Hill had a team-high 60 rushing yards and a touchdown on seven carries, with Jyaire Hill adding 33 yards and his score on four carries. Allen had six catches for 46 yards and his three scores.
The Kays return home next weekend to host Champaign Centennial at 7 p.m.