A young man bakes under the August sun, slouching,
hands on his knees, in the classic athletic stance of near exhaustion. Sweat pours
from every pore as his coach explains the play again.
He is giving up at least six hours a day of the rest
of his summer vacation to practice football. He’s an offensive lineman, the definition
of anonymous. He may never get his name in the local paper, much less his picture.
Why does he do it? Because one Friday night this autumn
he will walk off the field with his teammates, victory assured, through throngs
of cheering fans, knowing he is part of something big, part of high school football
Each Friday night, at half the high schools in the
state, towering banks of lights ringing emerald-green fields illuminate battles
with armored combatants, defenders and invaders, hurling themselves at each
other amid the pomp and pageantry of a medieval joust.
High school football in Kentucky has seen an upsurge
in the last few years. Louis Stout, commissioner of the Kentucky High School
Athletics Association, thinks he knows why.
“By moving the playoffs to Cardinal Stadium
(in Louisville) the program has become a top athletic showcase on the first
weekend in December,” he says. “Combine that with the fantastic programs
at Eastern Kentucky University, Murray, Western, the University of Kentucky,
and Louisville, and you can see the style of play at the high school level has
changed drastically. The excitement of the up-tempo play has caused the fans
to become excited.”
Stout credits former Kentucky Wildcat Tim Couch of
Hyden and former Louisville Cardinal Chris Redman as influences on this new
“These two young men became trendsetters relative
to the passing game in high school football and the game itself took on a whole
new look,” he says.
This season 209 Kentucky high schools in four classes
will compete for the chance to play the first weekend in December at Cardinal
Stadium in Louisville.
One coach who got to do that, and who has known both
victory and defeat, is former George Rogers Clark High School coach Don Danko.
Danko’s Cardinals used a misleading, misdirectional offense from his native
Delaware and swept through an undefeated season.
The run for the title reminded Danko of his high
school days in Bluefield, Virginia.
“We always had good teams and I can remember
walking downtown and having almost everyone stop and ask you about the team
and how you were doing,” he says. “It was the same here that year.
There was a lot of excitement and it really became infectious as the season
went on. It was something I know the kids will never forget.”
Six years later Danko and his Cardinals suffered
a winless season. Their approach was the same, but sometimes things go wrong.
Danko told a reporter after the final game, “If you go 15-0, you have to
be prepared to go 0-10.”
At Highlands in Fort Thomas, fans walk through tree-lined
neighborhoods on crisp autumn nights to 4,700-seat David Cecil Memorial Stadium
to watch their beloved Bluebirds.
Football is more than a tradition at Highlands, it’s
a way of life. The Bluebirds have won three straight championships and 15 since
the current playoff system started in 1959. They’ve sent several players to
major college careers, including University of Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen.
Coach Dale Mueller returned to his alma mater seven
years ago to continue the tradition. A member of the 1970 state championship
Bluebird team, his captains that year were Rich Grover, Dan Schneider, and Dave
Freer. Their sons Brent Grover, Chris Schneider, and Ben Freer played for last
season’s championship team.
“At Highlands,” Mueller says, “we
expect to win the state championship every year.”
Mueller admits it’s fun to coach at a school with
such a successful history and fun to coach such players as Lorenzen.
“I got to hating to call running plays when
Jared was in there because it was so exciting to see him turn loose with that
football,” Mueller laughs.
Dudley Hilton and his Bell County Bobcats won their
first championship in 1991. Six seasons later, Hilton’s Bourbon County Colonels
handed Hilton his second championship. He seemed set for life in the Bluegrass
but this season he is back at Bell County, returning to the mountains because
football is a bigger deal there.
“It’s not that the kids are different,”
he says. “But the opportunities for kids in the Bluegrass to do other things,
to have jobs, are different than they are in the mountains. In the Bluegrass,
the kids play baseball year-round, play basketball year-round, play soccer year-round.
Football got what was left.
“In the mountains,” he adds, “those
types of opportunities are not always there and as a result you get kids playing
all the sports.”
Although Hilton would be glad to bring another championship
to Bell County, that’s not his goal.
“I had six teams in the 1990s that I thought
could win it all but the two that did win were the biggest surprises,”
he says. “Our goal, every year, is to win every game. You can’t plan these
things, you just let it come naturally.”
When the Mayfield Cardinals run onto the field,
children lean over the railings of cozy War Memorial Stadium and, for good luck,
pat the helmets of teenagers, just as those teenagers patted helmets when they
Tradition means a lot to Mayfield and that tradition
is buoyed by success. The Cardinals have won eight Class A state championships
since 1959 and they’ve come close a lot of other years.
“We’ve been to the championship game 12 times
and we’ve been in the final four 18 times,” Mayfield coach Joe Morris says.
“I don’t know of anybody that can match that.”
Football is a family tradition at Mayfield. Morris’s
father, Jack Morris, was head for 24 years. When Paul Leahy retired after the
1998 championship season, his son Joe took over and Joe brought his dad back
as an assistant coach and his brother David came over from Tony Franklin’s staff
at Mercer County to become another assistant. Joe Morris inherited a program
that enjoys unusual support.
“We’ve got 380 kids in school and for such a
small school we’ve got 50 kids on our roster this season,” he says. “That’s
a pretty good percentage. And I guarantee you, on Fridays before home games
350 of those 380 students are wearing red and black.”
Along with that support come high expectations.
“We haven’t won a state championship for three
years and I’ve had people ask me what’s wrong,” he says. “There’s
a lot of pressure on me, on the players, and on the coaches. Our fans are spoiled
but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Looking into the crystal ball of high school football
We asked the writer of this feature on high school
football to take the always risky step of making some predictions. For some
reason, he agreed to do it. So here is an opinionated guide to the upcoming
season, according to Jeff Kerr, sports editor for The Winchester Sun.
2000 championship: Danville 23, Newport Catholic
The contenders: Danville is always a good bet. The
Admirals have won eight state championships in three different classes. Beechwood
can’t be ignored; the Tigers also have eight state championships, including
three out of the last five. Newport Catholic and Pikeville made strong playoff
runs last season and are consistent winners.
The team to watch: Murray. The Tigers are double
mad after last season. District rival Mayfield beat them 19-0 in the quarterfinals
after edging them 7-6 during the regular season. And Mayfield is a little down
this season with only seven seniors. It could be serious payback time.
2000 championship: Boyle County 38, Glasgow 0.
The contenders: Now that Boyle County is on top the
Rebels intend to stay. But the Scotties of Glasgow could have another strong
team and don’t rule out another team with a strong tradition, Corbin.
The team to watch: Lexington Catholic. The Knights
knocked on the door last season and have been making state championships a habit
recently, no matter what sport.
2000 championship: Highlands 48, Owensboro 27.
The contenders: Highlands is like Tiger Woods. When
the Bluebirds are in the field, they are always favorites. And with three straight
state titles, they know the way. Owensboro and always tough Bowling Green could
pose threats again.
The team to watch: Rockcastle County. The Rockets
have been quietly building a powerhouse program. Highlands hammered them 41-9
in the semifinals last season but, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you
makes you stronger.
2000 championship: Male 34, Trinity 14.
The contenders: Male beat Trinity for the Class AAAA
title last season-and everybody outside Louisville yawned. The Jefferson County
schools owned the Class AAAA championship in the 1990s, yielding it only to
George Rogers Clark in 1991 and Nelson County in 1996. It’s probably the same
story this season. The quartet of Male and Manual, and private schools Trinity
and St. Xavier, should battle it out in a neighborhood brawl. Lexington Henry
Clay is also in the hunt this year and a contender could come out of the west
where Christian County and North Hardin have traditionally strong programs.
The team to watch: Scott County. Last season the
young Cardinals got some valuable playoff experience and they have lots of talented
athletes to put on the Rawlings Stadium field this season.
The making of a rivalry
When the modern surge of interest in high school
football began after the Second World War, rivalries tended to be between neighboring
county seats. Most city schools fielded football teams but the smaller county
schools couldn’t afford to.
Then the consolidation wave brought a new kind of
rivalry, city against county, schools like Middlesboro and Bell County, Boyd
County and Ashland, Paris and Bourbon County.
Of course there have always been big-city rivalries,
Louisville schools against Louisville schools and Lexington schools against
Lexington schools. Northern Kentucky hosted neighborhood rivalries, with some
schools in different cities so close together they could see each other’s stadium
lights on Friday nights.
With the advent of the present playoff system in
1959, a new kind of rivalry arose, district rivalries. But district rivalries
come and go, as the Kentucky High School Athletic Association continually tweaks
Some rivalries weren’t always rivalries-like Danville
and Boyle County.
Last year the two schools combined for a 29-1 record
and two state championships in the same county. The only loss for either? Boyle’s
47-0 thumping of neighbor Danville.
But, as Danville coach Sam Harp says, “It wasn’t
always a rivalry.”
And Boyle coach Chuck Smith agrees. “We weren’t
very good for a long time.”
“Obviously Boyle has always been a rival but
they went through a period where they were down,” Harp says. “But
it’s a fierce rivalry now.”
Smith is in his 10th season at Boyle County and the
program has made significant progress since he took over. But it seemed like
it would take forever for the Rebels to beat Danville.
“For the first couple of years I was here it
wasn’t even a close game,” he says. “Then in 1995 we beat them for
the first time in 19 games and we’ve won four out of the last five.”
Last year’s thrashing caused the Admirals to take
stock, Harp says. “We didn’t play well and they just humbled us. We felt
The Danville defense made sure no one else rang up
47 points on them the rest of the season. The Admirals posted shutouts in four
of the next seven regular-season games, gave up only 20 points in those seven
games, then breezed through the playoffs.
Meanwhile Boyle County hasn’t lost a game in more
than two years, though the schedule gave Danville a chance to rectify that August
31 when they hosted the Rebels.