KANKAKEE — It's been quite a while since Kankakee and Bishop McNamara have done battle on the gridiron. But for 90 minutes Tuesday, the two schools shared a field again at Kankakee High School.
While 7-on-7 is a popular practice module for schools to mingle during the summer, most of these practice sessions don't find four- to five-dozen fans in the stands as Tuesday's session did.
"They should have charged admission," Irish coach Rich Zinanni said. "It was a great, friendly rivalry, and we were here for one reason; to get better. Hopefully, we got better, and they got better."
Kankakee coach Omar Grant said the team's 7-on-7 sessions this season, which also include practices with area schools such as Bradley-Bourbonnais, Manteno and Herscher, have received strong support.
"I like what our community is doing in terms of backing our teams and supporting them," Grant said. "It's awesome, and I didn't expect this (turnout), but it was great for the kids and gave us a good early atmosphere."
Grant's coaching staff saw three new additions during the spring. Two of those coaches are old faces: former assistant John Bardoff is back after a couple of years away, and former Kays standout Greg Murphy is back with the program.
The Kays also have a new offensive coordinator, Ben Clark, who came to the Kays after spending a few seasons coaching college football, most recently at Quincy University last season.
"He's bringing a new flavor. We've got a little tempo going, and the kids like it," Grant said of his new coordinator. "It's not the old Kankakee thing, where one guy touches the ball all the time. We're spreading the ball around and more guys are getting the ball in space."
Sophomore Dequan Burns and junior Tyjuan Stewart alternated at the quarterback position for the Kays on Tuesday. Grant said each brings a different dynamic to the offense, and he and his staff are "trying to figure out who is going to take the reigns and take charge."
Shortly after the end of the session, the Kays celebrated the college commitment of senior offensive tackle Keagen Trost, who announced he will spend his college career playing at Eastern Illinois University on Tuesday night.
"Keagen is the guy around here," Grant said. "That's something he's been working towards and he's definitely committed to the weight room since last season. He's starting to invest a little more as far as understanding the game, and it's paid off."
Irish offense on all cylinders
While the Kays will sport a new offense with a new quarterback, the Irish will look to junior quarterback Tyler Hiller to take the next step. In seven games last season, Hiller threw for 865 yards and seven touchdowns.
He looks to have continued building a rapport with Payton Gerberding, a returning all-conference wide receiver. Gerberding caught 22 passes for 535 yards and five touchdowns as a junior last year and he and Hiller connected all night, whether it be a short crossing pattern or a 40-yard go route.
"The passing game has been going," Zinanni said. "We know Payton's a special receiver, and Tyler's a really good quarterback, and we've got some other kids, too, that are stepping up."
Zinanni raved at the summer last year's leading rusher, Tyshon King, has had.
He's also been pleased with a pair of new additions who are in the mix at both wide receiver and defensive back: senior Wilson Netherton, a basketball player trying his hand at football and Ethan Perakis, a transfer student from West Virginia.
Citing a plethora of injuries last season, this year's squad has plentiful varsity experience, which has allowed for a smoother summer transition.
"We have 10 kids back on defense that started at some point and eight kids on offense," Zinanni said. "We've got a lot of guys that have experience, so we think we should be a pretty decent football team."