REGGIE HAYES: It’s easy to root for Pete Kempf and DeKalb High School football
WATERLOO – As sports reporters, we’re not supposed to root for teams or coaches, but I’d love to see DeKalb High School football and Pete Kempf have a great season.
Kempf brought fresh passion to the program four years ago, he brought a steady hand when the team and the school went through the tragic deaths of players Derek Padilla and Lucas Oberkiser in 2016 and he brought a renewed sense of family always at the heart of the closest teams this summer.
All that’s missing is a winning, triumphant season.
Who knows if that’s in life’s unpredictable playbook, but as practice officially opened Monday for the 2018 season, Kempf’s passionate, upbeat approach was on display with the sky as the limit.
“I feel like this is a big season with a lot of opportunities,” senior quarterback Kyle Dunham said. “We’re strong in every class we have, we have a good knowledge of the playbook, we’re deep in every position. I feel like this can be a good year for us.”
Kempf feels that way, too. He’s seen the progress everywhere within the program – the Barons were undefeated in freshman football last fall and recorded their highest combination of wins (varsity, junior varsity and freshman). The only thing missing is a big run of Friday nights.
The season starts Aug. 17, less than three weeks away.
“Every year is always pivotal,” Kempf said. “I think we as a school and a program are ready to make that step above .500 and compete for a conference title. We haven’t been above .500 since 2007 and that’s not something we set as a goal, just to be .500. Being at DeKalb, the standard is high. We’ve been through the rebuilding process for four years. We’re ready to take it to another level.”
To that point, Kempf has continued to fill out his coaching staff with experienced and hungry football coaches who worked their way to small-college playing careers. Last year, he added strength and conditioning coach Joshua Collins, a first for the DeKalb program.
Collins, who moved a few times as a child because of an Army upbringing, graduated from Wayne High School and embarked on a career in health and sports fitness. He has embraced stepping into the DeKalb program.
“Most small towns, the head coach tries to do it all,” Collins said. “You need a team. Good programs, they understand it’s all about the team. You can’t be Superman.”
Collins said the DeKalb players bought into his strength-and-condition program and accepted the perspective and direction he delivered to the weight room and beyond.
“It’s no secret I’m the only black guy here (on the coaching staff),” Collins said. “I do this in hopes more people can unify, despite what color they are. Sports and music are bridges for people to unify.”
Kempf said he still found himself gearing his coaching last season to take into account the still-healing grief that stuck with players who had lost their friends in the auto accident a year earlier. He had to work more on keeping practices fun and upbeat for the good of the players. DeKalb finished 3-7.
Kempf’s first two seasons were steady progress on the win front, going from 3-7 to 5-6. The Barons were 3-5 (with two games canceled due to the tragedy) in 2016. Last season, they started with five straight losses before three wins in the final five games.
“Last year was a hard year,” Kempf said. “This year, we have a certain amount of momentum from having a good summer, reestablishing ourselves again as a program.”
As a reflection of the program’s growth, the team has 21 seniors and 18 juniors. The season prior to Kempf taking over in 2014, the team had only 26 total players.
“I just like the atmosphere, all my friends and brothers, getting back into it,” Dunham said. “It’s such a good culture to build around, DeKalb football, and we’re getting back to that excitement.”
Aidan Friedel, a senior safety/outside linebacker, said he believes the team will be more of a confident, attacking team this season.
“We’re a lot less timid, and that’s a plus this year,” Friedel said. “That’s one of the biggest things about us going into this year. We don’t care who it is across from us, we just want to play and hit them. We’re a lot more aggressive this year, which I like personally.”
The community support has been strong and Kempf, who now runs the media department at the school, has arranged to get the Friday games on the air in a couple of platforms, including regular radio. There is also a drive within the school district to invest in upgrading the campus and its sports facilities.
There seems to be a positive vibe surrounding the sports programs, and football in particular.
Kempf deserves credit for much of that, as he brings passion and forward-thinking to the table.
“I do believe this is going to be a good year to start moving in the right direction,” Friedel said. “I have high hopes for the team. I think we can be something good this season.”
You don’t have to be invested in DeKalb to see Kempf and others at the school have their priorities straight. And you don’t have to be a DeKalb fan to think it’d be a nice bonus to have those priorities rewarded with a few more wins.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.