DEKALB — Before Saturday’s IHSA Class 5A football state championship, Kankakee only had to erase a double-digit deficit one time all season.

So, when the Kays found themselves down 28-0 to Fenwick in the second quarter Saturday, they were in largely unfamiliar territory. Although they were able to cut their deficit by more than half in just less than five minutes of game action, the Friars’ big, balanced offense and physical defense was too much for Kankakee to handle, as Fenwick won its first-ever state championship with a 34-15 victory at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb in a matchup of teams making their state championship debuts.

The loss was the first all season for the Kays, who will end their best season in school history with a 13-1 record on their way to the program’s first state title game appearance.

“I’m just really proud of our kids and what we accomplished this year,” Kays coach Derek Hart said. “It’s obviously not how we wanted it to end, but at the end of the day, what these guys did this year is something no Kankakee team has ever done, so I’m just really proud.”

The Friars wasted no time taking the lead they held all game, as they capped off a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 21-yard touchdown from Kaden Cobb to Bryan Hunt that gave Fenwick a 7-0 lead just more than three minutes into the game.

After a quick Kankakee turnover on downs gave Fenwick the ball back at the Kays’ 37-yard line, the Friars turned it over on downs themselves inside the 10-yard line. But a Kankakee three-and-out quickly put the ball back in the hands of Cobb, whose 18-yard touchdown to Max Reese made it a 14-0 affair with just more than a minute left in the first quarter.

The Kays’ woes leaked into the second quarter, as Reese beat double coverage for a 67-yard touchdown on the next Fenwick possession before Danny Kent busted in from 1 yard out to give Fenwick a 28-0 lead before Kankakee’s offense had recorded a first down near the midway point of the second quarter.

On the ensuing Kankakee drive, the offense finally found some life. Quarterback Tomele Staples, who consistently had seen Fenwick linebackers going back and forth between blitzing and dropping in spy coverage to contain the Kays’ dual-threat quarterback, was given a little more room to work with as the Friars began to play more zone defense, allowing Kankakee to muster up its first first down of the contest with five minutes left in the half.

They ended up finding paydirt on that drive, as the Kays cut the deficit to 28-7 by the half, when Staples hit Karson King for an 11-yard score to cap a persistent 17-play, 80-yard drive with 20 seconds left in the half.

The Kays managed to bring their freshly-found momentum back onto the field for the second half, when they again put together a long drive that ended in the end zone, taking the opening drive 80 yards in 14 plays, with a Nate Hill 1-yard touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion from Staples to Maurice Burkes, turning what had been a 28-0 game in the final seconds of the first half into a 28-15 affair just four minutes into the third quarter, but that was as close as the Kays would come.

“We scored right before half, had momentum, came out and scored,” Hart said. “It felt like we were right there, but we just couldn’t get stops when we needed to and couldn’t get scores when we needed to.”

Despite the midgame spark from the Kays, Fenwick was never taken out of its primary focus, which, despite the three-touchdown game from Cobb, a Ball State commit; Reese, an Eastern Michigan commit; and receiver Eian Pugh, an Illinois commit, was to continue to give the rock to Kent, who wound up totaling 208 yards and his touchdown on 31 carries.

“I just saw a lot of holes; I didn’t break anything really far, but the [offensive] line did their job,” Kent said. “Coming in, we knew we could run our power play a lot, and, as expected, it was there.”

Kent was able to pick up a few first downs that seemed to break the back of the Kankakee defense, which, despite a decided size disadvantage against a Friars starting offensive line that averaged more than 270 pounds, continued to display the fight that got them to DeKalb in the first place.

“It’s pretty tough because you’ve got people not in your weight class, and once they get their hands on you, it’s kind of over with,” linebacker Josiha Mason said. “You have to use your technique to get off of them, but other than that, you have to just use what you know.”

The Friars tacked on insurance in response to that Kankakee scoring drive when Cobb called his own number for a 1-yard score on the ensuing Fenwick drive.

Kankakee was able to get some chunk plays to receivers King, Pierre Allen and Quan McElroy, but the Fenwick defense just kept coming and coming, stopping several second-half drives with timely sacks and tackles in the backfield.

It seemed as if the Kays got the big play they were going to need in the fourth quarter, when Jyaire Hill appeared to return a punt 95 yards for a touchdown, but Hill had stepped out of bounds all the way back at the Kankakee 22-yard line, negating the score.

“That’s what Jyaire does, and we usually get one of those a game from him,” Hart said of his all-state defensive back and running back. “That was his one, just a couple inches out [of bounds] … a huge momentum swing in this game.”

The Kays were able to move the ball a bit, including a 21-yard scramble from Staples on 4th-and-1 from their own 31-yard line, but eventually turned it over on downs at the Fenwick 42-yard line, where the Friars went on to run out the clock.

“Coming in, we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” King said, “Our motto is to change the culture, so we wanted to get rid of that [negative] mindset. We fought, and we fought; we just didn’t get the outcome we wanted.”

The season-ending loss left the team and their fans with immediate tears but also immediate joy, as the Kankakee Kays ended their season on the field of the state championship for the first time ever.

It was the latest in a season of firsts that also saw the team set a new school record for wins in a season, win their first-ever Southland Athletic Conference title and also give the program its first undefeated regular season since 1990.

“Of course the feeling is down right now, but looking back, it was a great season ...” Staples said. “It feels good to see the city behind you. You go out anywhere, and everyone knows who you are and supports you.

“We had a big fan turnout, way bigger than I think a lot of people expected, and it’s been a great ride.”

STAT BOOK

Staples finished 17-for-37 passing for 178 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also led Kankakee’s rushing attack with 28 yards on 15 attempts. King had six catches for 81 yards and a score. McElroy added four grabs for 52 yards. Allen had three catches for 28 yards. Nate Hill ran for 11 yards and a touchdown and added four catches for 21 yards.

Cobb finished the day 11-for-18 passing for 146 yards and three touchdowns and added 55 yards on the ground on nine attempts. Reese caught two of the touchdowns and accounted for 91 yards on three catches. Kent was named the player of the game after rushing for 208 yards.

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.