There’s reason for optimism in “Mustang Nation” as football season draws near, and the source of that optimism can be rooted in one word: Experience.
The McCracken County Mustangs football team returns many members from their 2018 squad, a squad that finished the season with an 8-4 record and winners of six straight games heading into the playoffs last season. The McCracken County offense returns 8 starters from the 2108 team, including last year’s quarterback, last year’s top statistical running back, and last year’s top statistical receiver.
Senior quarterback Elijah Wheat anchors the McCracken County offense once again. Wheat passed for 1,822 yards and 18 touchdowns on 126 pass completions last season. He has many of his top targets to work with again this season.
Senior Franklin Hayes headlines a strong receiving core for McCracken County this season. Hayes led every statistical category at receiver last season with 623 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 32 pass receptions. Hayes also rushed for 128 yards and six touchdowns last season. Alongside Hayes at receiver will be junior Zander Mayes, junior Ian McCune, and sophomore Jeremiah Hughes. Senior Pete Holmes and sophomore Nick Masek will play at the tight end position.
Junior Hunter Bradley anchors the running game this season for McCracken County. Bradley led the Mustangs in every rushing category last season, including 744 rushing yards on 143 attempts and ten rushing touchdowns. Bradley averaged just under 70 rushing yards per game last season. Bradley also had 13 pass receptions for 113 receiving yards. Backing up Bradley in the running game will be seniors Franklin Hayes and Elijah Holland, as well as junior Carter Roland.
The Mustangs offensive line will feature four names that received significant playing time last season. Junior Blakely Miller, senior Reagan Garner, senior Braden Glover, and junior Jameson Evers will all see a significant number of snaps this season with juniors Gavin Trueblood and Tayton Bedinger seeing snaps as well.
The defensive side of the football will feature a bit more youth than the offensive side of the football, but the Mustangs are quite optimistic with their defense overall. The Mustangs return five defensive starters from the 2018 squad; including seniors Trusdin Hildreth, Kolton Reeves, Ethan McKendree, junior Hunter Vlach, and sophomore LeAndre Bolen. Also seeing time on the defensive side of the football for the Mustangs will be senior Keaton Owsley, juniors Jackson Gruber, Isaiah Keys, Keyron Perez, sophomores Dalton Skinner, Isaiah Conner, Joe Casey, Nathan Helmich, Colton Crowell, Hayden Gower, and freshman Noah Adreon.
Junior kicker Ben Schofield will assume all place-kicking responsibilities this season for the Mustangs. Last season, Schofield connected on 30 extra point kicks and three field goals. The punter this season will be Zander Mayes.
One of the more impressive streaks in Kentucky high school football right now belongs to McCracken County. In six full seasons as a program, the Mustangs have won the Class 6A District 1 Championship all six seasons. In the regular season, the Mustangs are undefeated against Class 6A District 1 opponents, having 22 wins and zero losses thus far. With district realignment taking place across the state this season, the Mustangs district now includes Marshall County and Owensboro Apollo, along with usual district foes Daviess County and Henderson County.
Marquette Stadium will host several high quality matchups this season, including the annual matchup with Paducah Tilghman on Saturday August 24th, a matchup against state power Bowling Green on August 30th, district rival Daviess County on October 4th, Tennessee power Dyer County on October 18th, and the season finale against Christian County on November 1st.
Paducah Tilghman football coach Jonathan Smith did an outstanding job in his first season as head coach of the Blue Tornado, leading Tilghman to a 9-3 record and the 2nd round of the Class 3A playoffs last season. The nine wins were the most Tilghman had won in a season since 2011. Smith and the Blue Tornado have their sights set for an even better 2019 season.
Tilghman will have some big shoes to fill on the offensive side of the football due to graduation, including 57% of their rushing yards and 65% of their rushing scoring. However, Tilghman has some solid players to fill those shoes.
Junior quarterback Cam Marshall will be back under center for Tilghman. In his first season as a varsity quarterback, Marshall threw for 394 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Damien Ford will also be the primary rusher this season for Tilghman. In his junior season, Ford rushed for 698 yards and 7 touchdowns. Senior Jayden Freeman will also receive a share of carries this season while also splitting time as a wide receiver. Last season, Freeman rushed for 310 yards and five touchdowns, while also receiving 193 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Tim Watkins will move over from his guard position to play the tight end position, and Tilghman returns two offensive linemen from last season in senior DaRoyce Flemons at center and senior Trevor Harmon at tackle.
The defensive side of the football also returns six seniors this season. Senior Jarmorie Sabbs returns at the linebacker position, seniors Trevor Harmon, Tim Watkins, and Rasheed Reed return on the defensive line, and Jayden Freeman and senior Jaedan Graham return as defensive backs. Tilghman’s defense really solidified themselves towards the end of the season last year; including a stretch in October where the Blue Tornado gave up only 18 points in October in three games.
Paducah Tilghman’s schedule opens with two headliners – the annual battles against McCracken County on August 24th and Mayfield on September 6th. The game against the Mustangs will be at McCracken County, while Tilghman hosts Mayfield this season. Then Tilghman will play three local teams in Graves County, Calloway County, and Trigg County before hosting DeSales, a team that dominated Class 2A in Kentucky for several seasons before making the jump to Class 3A this season. Paducah Tilghman then closes out the regular season against Union County, Webster County, and Hopkinsville.
One of the top quarterbacks statistically in the state of Kentucky last season could be found in La Center at Ballard Memorial High School. Quarterback Eric Marinelli lit up the scoreboard every Friday night for the Ballard Memorial Bombers last season; throwing for 2,533 yards (averaging 230 passing yards per game) on 186 completions and 34 touchdowns (averaging just over three touchdown passes per game). Marinelli and several talented Bombers alongside him graduated last season, so the Bombers will be depending on some new faces to step in this season.
Along with the new faces on offense, Coach Mark Brooks and the Bombers will be moving to more option-like offense. Senior Parker Rathman will step in at quarterback for Ballard Memorial. Last season, Rathman spent some time at receiver as well as a small amount of time at running back. As a receiver, Rathman had 88 receiving yards on 9 receptions for the Bombers in 2018.
Seniors Trenton and Trevor Howard will be two big pieces to the Bombers offense this season. Last season, Trenton Howard was second in receiving for the Bombers with 722 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games played. Trevor Howard spent more time at running back last season and rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown. Senior guard Colton Baker and senior Carson Bishop are two players Coach Brooks is looking to create some gaps along the line for Rathman, Howard, and Howard. Joining Baker and Bishop on the offensive line will be senior Ryan Rehkember, and juniors Mason Headrick and Jake Lane.
The schedule for the Bombers will not be easy. Due to district realignment, the Bombers inherit Caldwell County into their Class 2A District 1 schedule. Along with Caldwell County in the district, Ballard Memorial will also have to face state power Mayfield and rival Murray in the district as well. The Bombers open up the season on the road against Class 6A Marshall County in Draffenville on August 23rd.
After a year of transition, the Calloway County Lakers football program hopes that the growing pains of 2018 are behind them as the promise of 2019 lies ahead.
According to second year head coach Chris Champion, the first half of last season was getting ahead of the learning curve.
“It probably took until about week five or six (of 2018) until everything really started clicking and the players understood the new system.”
With the exception of one assistant staying on from previous head coach Mickey Garrison's staff, Champion brought in a whole new group that installed entirely new offensive and defensive philosophies.
A lot of that mindset comes from his playing days at Mayfield, where Champion won state titles in the early 2000s on the gridiron under longtime coach Joe Morris, who then hired Champion on his staff after he graduated from Murray State University where he competed on the Men's Track & Field Team.
Even with a new system and staff, and a group of underclassmen that were coming off their first winless season in program history that also snapped a streak of 11 straight postseason appearances, it didn't deter the Lakers from making progress in year one under Champion.
“In the second half, we really started putting things together as the quarterback started making some really nice reads and throws, the defense was limiting mistakes and lining up correctly, which in turn puts us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were not only scheme wise in the early going, but physically as well.” said Champion.
The progress in 2018 included notching three wins against Metcalfe County, Fulton County, and district rival Hopkins County Central. Additionally, they went back to the Class 4A State Football playoffs, after not qualifying the year prior, before bowing out to eventual state champion Franklin-Simpson. The Lakers also lost one-possession contests to Marshall and Hancock counties that kept a .500 season just out of reach.
Likewise, the Lakers do not lose a substantial amount of talent as was seen after a seven-win season in 2016 saw the graduation of 10 seniors that led to the disappointment of no wins in 2017. A group of 11 seniors will lead a much more seasoned group that have experienced both the highs and lows of the last three years.
Leading the charge will be senior QB/S John Foster who guided the team during 2018 to those three wins while also racking up over 200 yards per game through the air, completing almost 50 percent of his passes. Foster also gained just over 50 yards per game on the ground.
A couple of targets for Foster will be returning seniors Luke Schwepker and Jacob Watters who combined for 80 percent of receiving yards a year ago and cracked double digits in receiving touchdowns.
On the flip side, the three aforementioned players will also be key on defensively after the graduation of LB's Lance Steinfeldt and Gabe Walker who led the team in tackles at just shy of 10 a game.
Alongside fellow senior WR/DB Ki Franklin, who Coach Champion considers one of the best two-way players in the area, Foster, Schwepker and Watters contributed to almost 20 interceptions from a year ago in the Laker defensive backfield and will be relied on heavily in 2019 to keep those numbers on the rise.
Rounding out the returners include juniors Aaron Fennel, who Champion labeled as “dynamite in a small package” and a guy who can tear up the field with the ball in his hands, alongside Zach Horns who will start at cornerback and play valuable minutes at halfback.
However, Coach Champion has his sights set on the long-term future of the program and the excitement is centered upon a large number of underclassmen, which will be needed up front after the graduation of nearly the entire offensive line.
“We've got a really big sophomore class and we have really high expectations for them because they are very talented. The freshmen class has some really great skill guys and nice looking linemen who are in the weight room building muscle. Our middle school and elementary numbers are really good and the future is definitely bright for Calloway.”
Even with the improvement of skill positions, which Champion claimed is one of the best overall groups he's ever been a part of, and 20 sophomores that provide much-needed depth that's been missing, it will still be a tough hill to climb if they want to return to form of years prior as they look for their first winning season since 2016 and first playoff win since their magical run to the Class 4A State Semi-Finals in 2008.
The district slate alone will feature three teams that all claimed wins in postseason play last season; Logan County, Hopkinsville and Madisonville, who made it to the state quarter-finals before narrowly losing to state champ Franklin-Simpson by two points.
On the non-district slate, annual border rivalries with 2A power Murray and 6A's Marshall County, who the Lakers have combined to only beat twice in their last 21 meetings, will highlight the early portion of 2019.
New faces to the schedule include three teams from 3A, including perennial state title contender Paducah Tilgman, Union County, who has been averaging eight wins a year over the last half of the decade, as well as Trigg County.
Early season success has not resulted in late season results, a tune the Marshall County Marshals football program hope to change in 2019.
The last three years have seen the Marshals win three of their first five regular season match-ups, only to falter as district play began.
In 2015, the Marshals moved to Class 5A after nearly a decade in 6A. Even with a drop down in enrollment, the level of competition remained stiff as Christian County, Graves County, Owensboro and Apollo brought frustration and disappointment to the back half of each season.
In four years, the Marshals went 1-15 against their 5A counterparts; the only victory being a playoff berth clinching, come-from-behind victory at Apollo in 2016. Now, what is old becomes new again as the challenge of Class 6A competition awaits the Marshals for the first time since 2014.
Head Coach Evan Merrick, who enters his sixth season at the helm in Draffenville, isn’t worried as much about the opponents on the other side of the line, but cleaning up the deficiencies that have plagued his team from reaching their full potential.
“The reason we haven’t built success and momentum is due in large part to turnovers. Our point of emphasis this year will be protecting the football as we were able to average over five yards a play last year offensively, but that was outweighed by the amount of points we gave up by putting our defense in short field situations.”
The numbers don’t lie. Even with the turnovers, those chunks of yardage for the Marshals offense led to 22 points per game in 2018, including a 48 point average in their wins against Fort Campbell, Ballard Memorial and Calloway County. However, the Marshals were top-five in Class 5A in points given up per game at 41.
“The defense has to step up to help us win the turnover differential, forcing the ball out of the opponent’s hands to score in multiple ways, which leads to maintaining long and sustained drives.” said Merrick.
The Marshals lost 12 seniors to graduation, along with junior QB Tyler Stokes who will be focusing on basketball. Stokes led the team with 500 yards passing and four touchdowns. One of his main targets in Austin Riley, leader in rushing touchdowns with nine and second in receiving yards, also graduated.
Experience on both the offensive and defensive line will also be missed; including All-West Kentucky Conference center Chet Cretsinger, along with Blake Myhand and Blake Strader who each were top-10 in tackles for the Marshals.
Coach Merrick though is not looking to the past, as he believes a fresh start on many levels is what is needed to return the Marshals to the consistent success they had for so many years.
“The offense is transitioning to (sophomore QB) Quinn Smith. He’s poised after a year of both freshmen and JV ball and has a lot of confidence and is not afraid to step up and lead a huddle. Guys that will be key at skill positions include RB/WR Bryce Flatt, who returns after a year’s absence, Garrett Parker as a slot back, Riley Smith at tight end along with Talon Smothers and Chase Thompson who are solid underclassmen on the line that fill the voids left from last year.”
That’s not to say that veteran leadership and presence is lacking, as Coach Merrick points out that depth at skill positions is prevalent with over 10 seniors returning that are hungry for success.
“Ty Buchmeier, a three-year starter and all-purpose player will play out wide, slot back and defensive back. Leader in tackles and sacks from a year ago, Dawson Smothers will also step in to play on the offensive line alongside Devon Evans, who played at half back last year. Our one returnee on the line is Dalton Keeling, who will definitely be our anchor. And it will be running back by committee with Cody Sorrells and former LB Luke Young taking on the load.”
Whether it be 5A or 6A, the Marshals never shy away from a tough schedule as they look to return to the glory days that saw Marshall County Hall of Famer, the late Jim Shelton take the Marshals to the 4A State Semi-Finals in 1995 and State Quarter-Finals in 1998, while son Scott led the Marshals to their last playoff win en route to the 2007 6A State Quarter-Finals.
After Jim Shelton’s 78 wins in 11 seasons as the head coach of the Marshals from 1990-2000, the Marshals have won only 76 games in the 19 seasons since. After a nine-win campaign in 2007, along with that last playoff win against Daviess County, the Marshals have only had one winning season in the last 11, going 6-5 in 2011.
Competition in 6A, District 1 will feature three teams that each collected seven wins a year ago: Daviess County, McCracken County and Henderson County, along with former 5A foe Apollo who has won four of the last five against the Marshals.
The non-district slate will feature two teams from Class 4A in 2018 state quarter-finalist Madisonville-North Hopkins and Calloway County, a team the Marshals have beaten 10 of the last 11 meetings.
The last two weeks of the season will be very special to Coach Merrick and his group as they play at his college, Campbellsville University against Harrison County, and then match-up with his alma mater and arch-rival Graves County on Senior Night, as the Marshals look to snap a 13-game losing streak against the Eagles.
Other non-district match-ups will feature Class 2A opponents in Murray at historic Ty Holland Stadium in week three, while Ballard Memorial will continue their decade long trek to Carroll Traylor Stadium as part of the annual Hall of Fame Game. The Marshals will be looking to win four in-a-row against the Bombers as they open the season on August 23 at 7:00 p.m.
By | Aaron Clayton
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