KANKAKEE — By the time Saturday’s IHSA Class 5A football semifinal between Kankakee and Morton ended, the host Kays either were going to have earned their first state championship game appearance in program history, or they were going to have been handed their first defeat of the season.

Thanks to a defense that scored as many touchdowns as it allowed and an overload of offense that drowned the Potters’ defense, the Kays saw their best-ever record improve to 13-0 and punched their ticket to the state finals for the first time in school history with a resounding 41-14 victory.

“It took the whole team, and we’ve been that the whole year — just guys making plays all year long. You can just go down the list of guys [who] have made big plays,” Kays coach Derek Hart said. “That’s the cool thing about this team is it’s a selfless team; nobody’s here for their own name or anything; they just want to win.”

Both teams saw their all-state stars have effects within the first 30 seconds of the contest, starting with Kays junior Jyaire Hill, who took the game’s opening play from scrimmage 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Kays a 6-0 advantage just 18 seconds into the contest.

“That’s normal,” Hill said. “[The team] expects that out of me, and that’s normal stuff I can do every game.”

But the Potters responded as quickly as possible when Seth Glatz, the nation’s leading rusher with 3,064 yards entering the weekend, according to Maxpreps.com, received the ensuing kickoff on a reverse and took it 95 yards for a score to give the visitors a 7-6 lead after a snap of offense and two kickoffs.

That Morton lead, the Potters’ only of the game, was short-lived, as the Kays countered when they capped off a seven-play, 66-yard drive when quarterback Tomele Staples found Maurice Burkes for an 11-yard score that gave the Kays a 13-7 lead a little more than three-and-a-half minutes in.

After the two teams traded turnovers on downs, Hill forced a Morton fumble on fourth down that Nick Hall recovered at the Kays’ 34-yard line with 4:20 on the first-half clock. The Kays made use of that possession by building their lead to 20-7 one minute before halftime, when Staples found Pierre Allen for their first of two touchdown connections, a 19-yarder.

After a Morton turnover on downs gave the Kays their first possession of the second half on their own 21-yard line, the offense put together its most impressive drive of the evening, a 12-play, 79-yard drive that gave the Kays a 29-7 lead 10 minutes into the second half.

The Kays’ offense has been potent all season, as it entered Saturday’s semifinal averaging 41.8 points per game. A lot of those points have come on home run plays such as Hill’s first play from scrimmage, but Hart was encouraged to see his team put together three scoring drives that went for at least seven plays and 65 yards, especially after being stunned by Glatz’s early fireworks.

“We were confident,” Hart said. “We got down 22-7 last week [in the Kays’ 44-38 quarterfinal win against Marion], so we had a dose of giving up big plays and letting a team get in it.

“We stayed calm and knew what we had to do. We had a great game plan defensively and just did what we had to do.”

That game plan largely revolved around attempting to stop Glatz, who entered the semifinals on a tear that included at least 240 yards in Morton’s first three games. He was held to less than 200 yards for the first time in the playoffs Saturday, totaling 186 yards and a late touchdown on 37 carries.

“We really made sure we focused on the run game, especially going against someone with 3,000 yards,” Kankakee defensive end Marques Covington said. “We knew we had to shut him down, and that’s what we did to secure the win.”

As the Kays saw their lead grow, the Potters were forced to abandon the run and go to the air, where Kankakee’s speedy secondary took advantage with three interceptions of Morton quarterback Layne Kaufman, including a Jyaire Hill pick that set up Allen’s second touchdown of the game, on a 4th-and-6 from the Morton 15-yard line on the second play of the fourth quarter, and a 79-yard Nazir Hill pick-six on the next Morton possession that put it in the bag for the Kays at 41-7 halfway through the fourth quarter.

“We’re a stacked team, and we just came out and played,” Nazir Hill said. “We just watched film, studied [the Potters], got the game plan and closed it out well.”

The Potters’ offense found the end zone for the first time on their final drive, when Glatz cashed in from a handful of yards out. After the Kays took over with 2:37 on the clock, they picked up a few first downs before Staples took the final three snaps and kneeled out the final seconds of history that didn’t recognize Kankakee football as a state finalist.

“It’s consistent work,” Staples said that has led to a transformation during the past few seasons that now has added the school’s first championship appearance to a season’s worth of program firsts. “We never stopped working and never stopped believing.

“Nobody believed in us, and we’ve been doubted ... but we always overcame, and everything is starting to pay off.”

Since Hart was named the team’s head coach before the 2019 season, the Kays had just one playoff appearance (in 2016 under former head coach Omar Grant) and zero playoff victories during the past 10 years.

But during the past three seasons, they’ve compiled a 26-4 record that included a 9-2 record and playoff victory in 2019; a 4-2 record in the postseason-less spring 2020-21 season; and now this fall, when their 13-0 record has become the best in school history. They also won their first-ever Southland Athletic Conference title and saw several team and individual offensive and defensive records broken along the way.

“This is a great feeling; I’m trying so hard not to drop a tear,” Nate Hill said. “I love it; we made history at Kankakee forever.

“Our names are associated with Kankakee forever.”

STAT BOOK

Staples threw for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 11-for-15 passing. Jyaire Hill had 96 rushing yards and a score on five carries. Nate Hill had 80 yards and a score on 12 carries. Allen had five catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns.

Davi Jones, Jyaire Hill and Nazir Hill all had interceptions. Jyaire Hill also had a team-high nine tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered by Hall. Covington had a sack, and Joseph Shannon had eight tackles.

 

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.