M. Terry / SFVS

On The Prowl For Wins — (l-r) Kevin Pham, Adrian Hernandez, Giovanni Maffei and Adam Lopez are out to regain respect for Kennedy football.

When Terrance Johnson took over the football program at Kennedy High three years ago, it was a program not in decline, but decay. The Golden Cougars were not only an afterthought in the Valley Mission League, they would free fall completely out of City Section’s Division I, and not stop until they landed in Division III.

Johnson and his coaching staff has spent the last two years stocking the roster with players as best as he could, and teaching them his system and philosophy of football.

This season — the 2016 season, his third — the Cougars are determined to put some teeth back in their bite.

“I think everyone’s bought in for us to succeed the way we want to or the way we know we can,” Johnson said. “Right now everyone’s on the same page, and has bought into what we we’re trying to accomplish this year.”

A winning season — something Kennedy hasn’t enjoyed since 2009 — would be an accomplishment. Last year’s team was 3-8. Although the Cougars did make the Division III playoffs, they were beaten by North Hollywood in the first round.

But Johnson wants his team to think of being above .500 for the first time in seven years. There are 23 seniors on this season’s roster that have toiled, battled, struggled and endured the tough times here. Six start on offense, seven on defense. All 23 are to bring wisdom, steadiness and commitment to the underclassmen, especially on the field.

“Now is the time to shine,” Johnson said.

“There has been less teaching [this summer]… Last year was a learning curve they had to go through. But [the growth] has shown from the seven-on-sevens we’ve had during the summer. The kids understand what’s expected of them and they’re excited. They’ve been anxious to get this thing going since the first day of pads.”

Key among returning seniors is outside linebacker Kevin Pham, who led the Cougars in tackles with 117 (of which 68 were solo). He also had two sacks.

Pham, 17, said there is a more unified feeling among the players during the spring and summer practices.

“We’ve come together as a team and we’re working hard all the time,” Pham said. “There were times where the chemistry had been off sometimes. But it’s a new year and we’ve been working with each other.”

Wide receiver Adrian Hernandez, a senior, agreed.

“We just need to build on what we had in the past, and understand what we need to do on the field,” Hernandez said. “We’re tired of losing, the disappointment. We know Kennedy doesn’t get any respect. This is a year where that can change.”

Although seniors dominate the roster, it will be a junior — quarterback Giovanni Maffei — who leads them.

“It’s his team. We’ve told him ‘we go as you go,’” Johnson said.

As a sophomore Maffei passed for 2,212 yards and 16 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also rushed for 255 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries. But he admitted he didn’t always possess the confidence he believes the position requires.

“Last year I was a little shaky at first, but the older guys took me under their wings and told me I can do this,” Maffei said.

“Last year helped with the experience I got. I had to learn to lead because last year wasn’t the best season. I realized you have to bring everyone up. I kept telling the guys we could do it, always being positive.”

Another underclassman, Adam Lopez, expects better days at Kennedy.

“I feel we can be dominant, even explosive,” said Lopez, 15, a junior who will play both wide receiver and defensive back. “It’s time to go out and win a lot of games. Our classmates would be surprised [if the team is successful]. We haven’t been on top in a long time. But we know we have to do it.”

Smiles were generally absent during the conversations with the players. And not just because it’s another hot day in pads and helmets. The attitudes were not hostile, but not docile, either. Just a collective one of no longer being willing to be a doormat.

Johnson called his team a combination of “collective talent and being a hungry group.”

“With the incoming seniors we have, and three years in the system, they know the scheme and know what’s expected of them. And they’ve worked since January, and early spring to develop the team camaraderie. And just the work ethic — being in the weight room, watching film — they’ve put the time in. That’s the excitement I see from them.”

Kennedy will be pushed early in nonleague games with Heritage Christian, Cleveland, North Hollywood and Granada Hills. Sylmar and Granada Hills are the main obstacles to success in the Valley Mission League.

But when you’ve been down like Kennedy has been down, moving up is a needed change.