Someone left a six-pack of beer on Jon Clark’s porch last Friday night — a congratulatory gesture after he coached Madison Southern to a 27-20 win over Harlan County in the semifinals of the Class 5A Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl playoffs.
“That blew my mind in Berea, Kentucky,” Clark said with a laugh during a phone interview this week.
The 2017 Eagles have been more mind-blowing than a case of brews in a moist city.
Madison Southern was coming off its fifth straight losing season when Clark assumed the reins in 2011. He took over a program with a roster of fewer than 20 players, or about half as many as most successful Class 5A programs boast … on their junior varsity teams.
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The Eagles won as many games in Clark’s first season as they did from 2008-2010, during which they went 2-29. In 2012 they made the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and in 2013 they won 10 games, then a school record.
Damien Harris, who’s now at Alabama, was part of those 2012 and 2013 teams and from the outside shouldered much of the credit for Southern’s ascension. Onlookers who expected the Eagles to nosedive once Harris graduated gained confidence in that assumption when, midway through the 2014 season, he suffered a knee injury against Southwestern and didn’t play again until the Eagles’ last game. After a 5-0 start, Southern finished 1-5 in Harris’ senior year.
Then a funny thing happened: the Eagles kept flying.
Madison Southern went 5-6 in 2015 but won its first district title in program history. It won its second in 2016 while going 8-4. Those seasons have culminated in a record-setting 11-3 campaign this year, and an unprecedented opportunity: on Saturday night, Madison Southern will get to play for a state football championship for the first time.
“The day I showed up at Madison Southern and said, ‘We’re gonna play for a state championship here. We’re gonna win districts, we’re gonna win regional championships,’ so many people told us we couldn’t,” Clark said. “They looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re an idiot. What are you talking about?’ And we’ve done it.
“We’ve spent our whole time here attacking and doing things we were told we couldn’t do.”
Road to the finals
The bulk of Clark’s coaching experience has come at the collegiate level, but he was part of the offensive coaching staff when Warren Central won the 2009 Class 5A title in Indiana.
Clark was the offensive line coach at Idaho State immediately before landing at Madison Southern. His first job was as an offensive line assistant at Ohio University, where he played, from 2005-2006. He assisted with the offensive line at Auburn the next year before coaching linemen overseas in Sweden through August 2007. The Indiana native worked in marketing for two years — he sold Atlanta Falcons tickets for 17 months — before landing at Warren Central.
His travels proved to Clark that a winner could be built at Madison Southern.
“I’ve recruited all over the country,” Clark said. “If there’s 1,100 kids in the building, there’s kids that can win a football game. It’s there. You just have to find it and make ’em believe in each other and give ’em something to work toward.”
The Eagles smashed Atherton, 36-3, in the first round of the playoffs before holding on for a 14-11 victory over Anderson County the next week. They cruised past Montgomery County, 61-20, which had given it a tough game in the regular season. Southern’s postseason run appeared to be in jeopardy when Harlan County found itself 30 yards away from the end zone after the Eagles fumbled with two minutes to play in the state semifinals.
But the Eagles forced a fumble of their own with 1:18 left and marched for the winning drive.
A quote has been written on a board in Madison Southern’s locker room for the past year: When the game’s on the line, think players, not plays.
“I believe that whole-heartedly,” Clark said. “We put the game in the hands of the guys who have gotten us to this point and ran some unconventional plays. When we were down and there wasn’t much time on the clock to go score, we weren’t chucking it over the field. We leaned on the guys that got us there and they got us there again.”
Even as a state-title match looms, naysayers remain. Clark has heard rumblings about how Madison Southern’s path to Kroger Field was softer than Covington Catholic’s, and about the Eagles’ overall schedule compared to the Colonels’.
As far as playoff scheduling goes, “We’ve played who the KHSAA laid out in front of us just like Covington Catholic has,” Clark said.
CovCath has advantages that Madison Southern never will, its proximity to and ability to draw talent from the Cincinnati area being perhaps the biggest.
“There’s a reason a lot of your private schools, Catholic schools, all-male schools like this are so competitive,” Clark said. “They have a different stream of acquiring talent than most public schools are ever going to have. It’s across the board, everywhere in the country. There’s a difference between public and private schools. It’s not an equal playing field, I don’t care what anybody says.”
Bigger than Christmas
It would be putting it lightly to say Madison Southern is an underdog against Covington Catholic, whom some believe to be the best team in the state this year regardless of class. Clark isn’t shy about playing that role.
“I know that in any given game, a lot of things can happen, so being a 40-point underdog, which is probably likely, that’s what we’re used to,” Clark said. “To me I wouldn’t know what to do if we weren’t. I fully expect that to be the case. And if I could pick a group of kids to attack that challenge, this would be the group.”
Carter Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher with 200 tackles from the linebacker position, spearheads the Eagles’ offense and defense. Quarterback Landen Stacy doesn’t throw a lot, but he usually connects when he does, going 103-for-172 for 1,565 yards and 21 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Stacy is also near 1,000 yards rushing on the season. Hunter Richardson, who has 575 yards and five TD receptions, leads seven receivers who have at least 100 yards this year. A strong game from defensive back Jordan Casteel, who has picked off nine passes this season, could be crucial to helping the Eagles derail CovCath quarterback AJ Mayer, who has committed to Miami (Ohio).
Clark likened Mayer’s game to that of Riley Hall, the former Pulaski County star who’s now at Georgetown College.
“But the thing is he’s bigger than Riley,” Clark said. “Riley Hall was extremely underrated and if he’d been the same size as AJ Mayer, he’d have had the same opportunities. ... (Mayer) is a really, really good high school quarterback.”
Doubt is rampant outside southern Madison County, but Berea has embraced its Eagles. School and community pep buses are scheduled to take fans from Berea to Lexington. A community-wide pep rally is scheduled for Friday evening.
The city even pushed its annual Christmas parade to next week so citizens wouldn’t have to choose between the game and the parade.
“Everybody keeps telling me in all the years of the Christmas parade, we’re the only ones that’ve got it moved. It’s always the first Saturday in December, so I guess that was a pretty big deal,” Clark said with a laugh.
It’s bigger than a big deal: Madison Southern has never won a state title in a team sport. It’s never even qualified for the state tournament in any of the other team sports. If the Eagles on Saturday can spring an upset, a six-pack “thank you” won’t be enough; try an entire brewery.
“You talk about a group that’s been told all the way through what they can’t do, and that they’ll never get it done from this school,” Clark said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these young men. We’ve got nothing to lose, brother.”
State football finals
At Kroger Field in Lexington
Class A: Beechwood (11-2) vs. Raceland (10-4), 2 p.m.
Class 3A: Boyle Co. (13-1) vs. Corbin (13-1), 7 p.m.
Class 2A: Mayfield (13-1) vs. Danville (14-0), 1 p.m.
Class 4A: Franklin-Simpson (11-3) vs. Johnson Central (12-2), 4:30 p.m.
Class 5A: Covington Catholic (14-0) vs. Madison Southern (11-3), 8 p.m.
Class 6A: Trinity (14-0) vs. St. Xavier (12-2), 2 p.m.