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COLFAX — Believe in us.

A simple enough request between friends, but there was a fire beneath Josh Hardman when he asked Tate Walcott to believe again in his Ridgeview/Lexington football team. Hoping it would become their team again.

See, Hardman and Walcott played at all three levels together as freshmen for the Mustangs, but the passion waned for Walcott — who also saw his future better in track and field. He did just this year win the Class 1A long jump title and take third place in the 200-meter dash.

But Hardman wasn't trying to lure him away from the track. He was trying to assure him that things had changed since the years between 2012 and 2015, when the Mustangs featured three different coaches and apathy was more present.

"I feel like now people are more upbeat and want to be around," Hardman said, reiterating his pitch to Walcott. "There's a purpose behind practice every day that wants us to be there. You'll fit right in. People will pick you up."

Walcott was sold, as were about 12 other students from Ridgeview and Lexington about third-year coach Jake Kennedy's renewed program this season.

Kennedy said his first Mustangs squad in 2016 fielded just 33 kids but now has 53 in pads for the upcoming season. A difficult thing for any program in the state to achieve with football participation in Illinois on a decline.

"Programs are dying or losing kids, and we're one of the few with an uptick," Kennedy said. "We're plus 17 kids from last year. We're going to have between 12-18 freshmen each year for the next few classes."

Kennedy wants the culture at Ridgeview/Lexington to breathe run-hard, stay-tough football each and every year, but he mostly deflects his role in demanding that mantra from the Mustangs to heap credit onto his players.

Take Jared Leake, who Kennedy describes as a tough, "blue collar" type of leader that "brings his lunchbox to work" and does his job each day on the football field. The Mustangs' new starting quarterback broke his leg last year before Week 1 kickoff, but was there every game, every practice, every meeting.

"All while knowing he was never going to play another game (last) season," Kennedy said. "Talk about culture. People see that and they say, 'This kid is all in.'"

As are Hardman, Walcott and boatloads of their teammates in preparation for a new slate of opponents in 2018 with Ridgeview/Lexington moving from the large to small division of the Heart of Illinois Conference.

Not to mention, technically, the Mustangs are one of the few teams in the state currently sitting at 1-0 after Week 1 opponent Our Lady of Sacred Heart Academy (Rockford) forfeited. Their first actual game will be a road matchup at LeRoy on Aug. 31.

Competing for the co-op program's first-ever conference championship is the top priority, Kennedy said, while adding that reaching the playoffs would also be a good benchmark for improvement after two straight 3-6 seasons.

All three of the Mustangs' wins last season did, after all, come against HOIC Small opponents.

"We aren't always going to be the best team on the field, but it's a choice of how hard you're going to go," Kennedy said.

Believe in us.

Hardman meant it when he asked Walcott to suit up, and he still means it as the Mustangs march closer to the season. The senior running back loves the drive he has seen from his teammates, but he also believes in more.

"We know we can be better than what we've been," Hardman said.



Aug. 25 at Our Lady of Sacred Heart Forfeit

Aug. 31 at LeRoy 7 p.m.

Sept. 7 vs. El Paso-Gridley 7 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Heyworth 7 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Eureka 7 p.m.

Sept. 28 vs. Tremont 7 p.m.

Oct. 5 at Fieldcrest 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Fisher 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. Flanagan/Woodland 7 p.m.