After some rocky years that involved several abrupt coaching changes, and a ham-fisted principal who is no longer there, stability is returning to all the athletic programs at Kennedy High.
The last program to get there is football.
Former Coach Dion Lambert and his staff were removed just before the 2013 season for allegedly failing to report a player losing consciousness during a practice. Lambert, a Kennedy grad, might not have survived in the job much longer anyway, with only one winning season in his six years there. And that was in 2009. From 2010 to last year — the first season under current head coach Terrance Johnson — the Golden Cougars have gone a collective 12-39, and dropped all the way from City Section’s Division I to Division III.
Johnson did’t get the full-time position until last May, giving him precious little time to organize a staff and start teaching the team his way of playing the game. So it was no surprise that Kennedy endured its fifth straight losing season last year, finishing 3-7.
But now the resurrection of the football program could begin.
“Last year we were so far behind the eight-ball; for example, getting [player] physicals, getting helmets reconditioned, all the little things we’d need to take care of in January,” said Johnson, recalling the shaky first few weeks of his tenure. “We were always one step behind. It showed in our first scrimmage. It showed against Contreras in our first game. This year I’m very excited. We are much more further along than we were last year.”
The word “excited” constantly comes up when Johnson talks. He is by nature charismatic and approachable, and it’s easy to see players and parents getting swept up in his energy. He appears sincere about wanting to restore pride and passion in the team, and it’s fan base.
There is one tried and true way to do that.
“Wins build excitement; we know that,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that right now we’re in Division III. A lot of our kids want to play at the Division I and Division II level. But I’ve told them this is a great opportunity for us right now. We have to start somewhere, and this is the hand we were dealt.
“Nothing against Coach Lambert and things they did in the past. But this is where we’re at now. And I think [the players] see the passion from myself and my coaching staff, the energy we’re putting into [the program] — that success that is coming.”
At least the players can go into the 2015 season feeling more prepared. They’ve had a full season, and now a full offseason of weight training and film study under the tutelage of Johnson’s staff.
It’s time to find out what might be possible.
“The first couple of years here, it wasn’t easy,” said Najee Morrison, 17, a senior who will play cornerback and receiver. “There was a lot of hard work to put in because we had different coaches. It was different from Coach Johnson. When he came we had to get used to what he brought to the table.”
But Morrison is feeling optimistic that Kennedy could have a good year, and maybe even qualify for the Division III playoffs. Being placed in Division III may appear to some fans as a step back but “it’s made us more hungry to get back to D-II and D-I… “ We know what [Johnson] wants and we have to keep working at it. Then come together as a team and go forward.”
Morrison is not alone in his thinking, especially after Kennedy won three of its last four games in 2014.
“Everyone started to believe in each other, and everyone started doing their job and what they were supposed to do,” said Justin Edemann, 17, a senior wide receiver.
“I’m really confident (about this season). Everyone is putting in the work. You get what you put out. Everyone’s been here in the offseason, lifting as hard as we can, and even on the off-days we’re coming in and showing what we have.”
Johnson wants the team to play a physical brand of football, meaning a power running game on offense and a hard-charging defense. That would suit lineman Martin Ibarra — one of the bigger players at 6-feet-5 and 284 pounds — just fine.
“I love it. You get your ‘pancake’ blocks here and there…the run game’s a beautiful thing,” said Ibarra, 17, a senior. And, he added, there is a general willingness to embrace Johnson’s style. “It was some ‘finally winning some games’ [last year]. But it also hit us that we all clicked together, that we can all do good things for each other.”
Other seniors, eager to have some good football memories before they leave Kennedy, are accepting the notion of a fresh approach even in their final year.
“I think that everything’s starting brand new,” said quarterback Henry Medellin, 17. “We got Coach Johnson last year, and our faculty and everyone had some doubts. But we’re all learning different things. Right now it’s just a great experience.
“We just need to keep working like we did in the last 3-4 games. We came up short in the last game, came up short for the playoffs, but this year we’ve been working hard in the offseason, spring practice and everything. We’re going for that Division III ring.”
Reaching a championship game may be asking a lot; finishing with a .500 or better record would be considered a big step forward. But the senior Cougars are not going to limit their thinking. Not with one last chance to shape their legacy.
A winning season “would mean a lot to the school, a lot to all the players, alumni — everybody,” noted wide receiver Vincent Garcia, 17. “Kennedy was a great school before. It kind of died out and we’re hoping to re-ignite that fire, trying to make all of Kennedy support us the way they do all other sports.”