Imagine Coach Terrance Johnson’s elation when he walked out onto the Kennedy High field for the first day of spring practice and saw more than 80 boys who wanted to play football. And now it is June, and those numbers haven’t shrunk.
Johnson doesn’t have to imagine having the largest turnout for football in his four years at the school. The vision is reinforced daily despite the early summer heat roasting the Valley.
“That was one of my bigger early concerns — do I have enough helmets to fit them all,” Johnson said. “But we’re good to go. So I‘m excited about what’s to come.
“I can’t stop smiling.”
It’s not just the sheer number of available bodies. Johnson said more than half of them are returners who have played at least a year in his program. It’s giving him and his staff a level of depth and experience that hasn’t been seen at Kennedy for several years.
“We’re changing the culture: that’s really been the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “And I think we’re doing that with how we’re going about our business. I want the kids to understand what it’s going to take to be a winner on and off the field. And this senior class — I’ve had them for four years now, and they bought into it. You can see their progression.”
You can hear it in their voices. After being part of some struggling teams in their earlier years at Kennedy — including a 3-7 season in 2014, Johnson’s first year — the seniors genuinely believe this season could be a memorable one for the right reasons.
“I feel like Coach Johnson has done a great job of bringing in new kids and bringing the old ways back to Kennedy,” said quarterback Gio Maffei, 17, who passed for 2,028 yards in 10 games last year, but had only three touchdown passes against eight interceptions.
“Before, nobody wanted to play — we were just known as a bad team. But he’s bringing the winning ways back. Now everyone’s buying into the system. And people are showing up.”
Adds wide receiver Sais Ruiz, 17, “I see a community of people wanting to do something with their school program, coming together as a unit. It wasn’t like this [a couple of years ago].”
The Cougars certainly made strides last season, winning five games (two more than in 2015), beating rival Granada Hills for the first time in five years to claim the Commerce Cup (known as “Tina”) the teams annually play for, and reaching the quarterfinals in the City Division III playoffs (losing to eventual Division III champion Franklin High of Los Angeles).
But the potential roster increase has given Johnson the idea of having enough athletes to avoid having players go both ways — offense and defense — every game to keep his starters fresher and healthier as the season progresses.
“We have a luxury at the skill positions,” the coach said. “We may be revamped on our lines, but a lot of those kids saw action last year and have an understanding of what we’re looking for.”
And now Johnson feels the Cougars can produce their first winning season since 2009.
“We have some beef, but we also have quickness,” Johnson said. “We’re not the biggest team but we are an athletic team.”
Even though there could be plenty of available players this season, lineman Vincent Perez, a senior, wouldn’t mind playing both offense and defense if the opportunity is there.
“When you play both ways it’s kinda hard. But at the same time you’ve got a lot of people counting on you,” said Perez, 17. “It will be easier with [more people] but I’d like to play as much as I can because it’s my last year — I want to give it all I’ve got.”
In his mind, Perez is still making up for his freshman year when he quit the team. It was his first year of playing football, and he wasn’t used to the physical demands of the game. But leaving “kinda got me mad because I could have been part of the team. But I quit, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
Perez, however, is willing to do whatever Johnson wants. So is wide receiver Adam Lopez, a senior, who is eager to see how this season will play out.
“If I’m being honest, we have an explosive team,” said Lopez, 16. “And not having to play both ways can be a benefit. [If we’re going to be good] we have to put in the work now, to work as a team. And I am seeing a lot of brotherhood. We know when to be intense, and when not to be.”
Safety Ruben Anguiano, 16, a senior, also believes the larger roster is going to pay a huge dividend.
“The competition has been good. And competition sparks everything,” Anguiano said. “We know we have to earn our playing time — nothing is given to you. But soon, everyone’s gonna find their spot and contribute. And that’s a good thing.”
Of course these are still the early days of summer. The heat isn’t going anywhere. And the Cougars still have to go through their “dead” period, when the coaches and players can have no contract.
It will be interesting to see how many here now come back to practice with the same eagerness and commitment.
Wide receiver Carlos Torres, for one, isn’t worried.
“This is exciting. It gives a us a lot of hope. It will be a lot better for us,” said Torres, 16, a senior.
“I think we have a really good chance of winning.”