WHEATFIELD | The ground was soaked. The mud was thick, and slick. The tears that dropped only added to the environ.
A handful of Kankakee Valley football players wept and hugged in the south end zone of Fred Jones Field, after a 38-0 loss to Hobart in the Class 4A Sectional 10 opener.
Then, a woman walked close enough for the Kougars to hear and exclaimed, with a slightly broken voice, “Boys, we are all real proud of you. Every last one of you.”
As her voice trailed off into the night, a young boy had K.V. quarterback Joel Bolen sign his football. The lad had about 50 signatures.
Despite what Friday night's scoreboard said, one of the above-the-fold stories of this football season has been Kankakee Valley football. They were like Lazarus and Elvis both being seen at a Dairy Queen in Michigan in the early 1980s.
These Kougars have indeed been risen from the dead.
“I thought I was good,” said senior running back Tyler Birky, who played on a bum ankle. Or tried to play. “I felt 95 percent at first. Then, 50. My ankle was killing me. I gave it everything I had, until I couldn't give any more.”
Hobart coach Ryan Turley had nothing but praise for what these rural boys have accomplished. It took a nearly perfect game plan and execution for the score to get this far out of reach.
The Kougars beat the Brickies in Week 4.
“Hats off to K.V.,” Turley said. “They've had a great season. Brad's brought the spirit back to this community. They should be proud of what they accomplished this year.”
Both programs had a rags-to-riches autumn.
The Kougars had the “most improved record” in the regular season in the state of Indiana. In 2011 the program went 2-7. The 8-1 mark this fall showed a six-game improvement.
Hobart, though, was tied with four other teams with the second best improvement in the state. The Brickies went from 2-7 to 7-2 for a five-game jump up.
“Why did a come here?” asked KV coach Brad Stewart, who helped take Lowell to three state championship games as a defensive coordinator this past decade before coming to a program where all the good coaches of the past did die.
“This community reminds me a lot of Lowell in the early 1990s,” Stewart said. “In 1992 we had our first .500 season (at Lowell) and it was like the world stopped. That town was hungry and when I got here a year and a half ago I knew this town was hungry.
“The kids, their parents, they gave our coaching staff everything they had.”
Stewart has seven returning starters coming back on both sides of the ball next year. Expect The Valley to continue being a region power. The Kougars are not going anywhere.
Except, they will likely go further than one game in the next tournament.
“This is not the end,” Birky said. “This is just the beginning. The younger guys are going to keep taking our program to the top.”
Driving through DeMotte and Wheatfield reminded these old eyes of all those drives through Lowell in Fridays past. Signs of support everywhere. Large crowds coming to cheer on their native sons.
The chill in the air wasn't the weather. It was the thrill coming from a program that used to stink. But not any more.
“I couldn't be prouder of what these kids did,” Stewart said.
And he was not alone.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.