The 2018 high school football season is about to get underway in Lexington.
We’ll also be sharing with you this week some of the top players to watch and the best games you can see in town this year. But what about the big picture? What do you need to know about the city’s eight KHSAA varsity programs — Bryan Station, Frederick Douglass, Henry Clay, Lafayette, Lexington Catholic, Lexington Christian, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek — with the season at its genesis?
Here are the big story lines to follow in Lexington this season.
The ‘S’ word
Frederick Douglass made haste in its inaugural season, sweeping the seven games it played against Fayette County competition and reaching the region championship game. It wasn’t without tribulation — Danville rocked the Broncos in their season opener and Scott County dismantled them in two meetings — but overall it was a terrific showing for a first-year program.
What’s in store for year two?
“All the right things have to happen in order to get to 10 wins, and we squeaked out a few there against some quality teams here in the city and were fortunate enough to win a couple in the playoffs,” Douglass Coach Brian Landis said. “This year, all-around, our kids have a higher expectation of themselves.”
Scott County has been the standard-bearer for Class 6A football in Central Kentucky for some time; it has played for a region title in 10 of the past 11 seasons, winning seven. The Cardinals are the only non-Louisville school to win a big-school state title in the six-class era, and are one of only three schools that have won a title in the state’s largest class in the last 30 years (Nelson County in 1996 and Clark County in 1991).
A full off-season weight-lifting routine along with actual scrimmages — Douglass is much further ahead in both regards than it was going into last season — will pay dividends for the Broncos, as will those two meetings with Scott Cou ... er, The Team Up North.
“We don’t say the ‘S’ word around here, and that’s no disrespect to them. They should be proud that we’re doing that for them,” Landis said. “The thing with The Team Up North, last year, we were just out-physicaled. We weren’t ready. Our kids now know, physically, what it takes to compete with them. They’ve been lifting weights since they were born. ... We’re not there yet, but I think we’re a little bit better than we were last year. We were beat to heck last year after playing those guys.”
Henry Clay, the oldest of Lexington’s football programs (Lafayette is second on that list), started 2017 like it started 2016 — poorly — but recovered nicely to finish 6-6, doubling its win total from the year before.
That kind of stuff can happen with a steady presence on the sideline, and Henry Clay is one of the few local programs where stability is a hallmark. Sam Simpson has led the Blue Devils since 1993, and has been part of 226 wins as he heads into his 26th season.
It helps to have returning talent, too, of which Henry Clay might have the most in the city, particularly on defense. Senior speedsters Ramond Jackson and Langston Jackson are track-and-field champions who can be counted on to grab interceptions and headlines, but the line play and middle of the defense should be strong for the Blue Devils, too.
“I feel like we can run the city this year just as long as we stay together as one unit,” said senior Dorien Hardin.
Hardin noted how important avoiding a sluggish start would be to that mission.
“Getting a strong start is very big ‘cause it sets the tone for the rest of the season,” Hardin said. “When you get a strong start you have people who really start believing in your team and our team starts to come around our coaches.”
Coming off back-to-back appearances in the Class 6A state-title game, Lafayette — the last Lexington team to beat Scott County — saw its 2017 campaign derailed by injuries. So, when asked what he’d like to see from his team after its first scrimmage, it wasn’t surprising to hear Coach Eric Shaw say one word with a grin.
One of those injuries was to TeAndre Newcomb, a dynamic receiver who started last season at quarterback before missing all but two games. He’ll move back to receiver to increase the Generals’ depth in the skill spots. Lafayette returns just a handful of starters on both sides but Shaw expects to field a competitive unit this fall.
“There’s a different energy level about this group,” Shaw said. “ ... We don’t have a national-attention guy. I think that’s the only difference between this group and past groups. We don’t have that ‘five-star kid’ but that don’t mean I don’t have five-star players.
Back in black
Bryan Station’s depth was shredded with the opening of Douglass and the placement of the Carter G. Woodson Academy at that campus, which helps explain last year’s 1-10 campaign, the program’s worst since 2010 (also 1-10).
A 16-player senior class that has experienced its ups and downs at Station will get a chance to redeem itself in 2018. And the players will look fly doing it: the program surprised them with brand-new black uniforms this summer.
“They’ve been wanting some black uniforms for several years now and we finally went ahead and took care of getting them,” said Defenders Coach Frank Parks. “So they’re happy about that. But if they don’t play well in them, they’ll sit for a little while. Some expectations come with new stuff.”
Kendrick Curry and DeShawn Starks, two of those seniors and leaders of a defense that’s looking to increase its ferocity this year, said they weren’t sure when the team would break out its new threads for the first time but think it’ll be when Station hosts Douglass on Sept. 28.
“I think they’re hard,” Starks said. “I can’t wait to break ’em out.”
Lexington Christian Academy re-emerged as a football power over the past two seasons, amassing a 31-8 record and reaching three straight region finals. The graduation of 12 seniors in May, and some significant transfers during the summer, means a lot of the talent that led the Eagles back to relevance is gone.
Blane Hardin, a senior linebacker and tight end, was a second-team all-city selection last year while seniors Kaleb Bolton (LB) and Ben Whitman (OL/DL) were honorable mentions. They are the biggest returning names and will carry a heavy leadership role due to their previous experience, but Coach Ethan Atchley is excited about an influx of freshmen who — like the class of 2018 group — won a middle-school state title as eighth-graders.
“Most of them that are ready will get significant playing time this year following the graduation of so many contributing seniors from last year’s team,” said Atchley, who in his first year had the Eagles one point away from a district title after they went 1-10 in 2013. “This year’s team doesn’t have a culture reset like took place a few years back.”
Chase Sacca, a senior, appears to be next in line as the lead back after the departure of workhorse Dillon Wheatley. He rushed for 168 yards and two TDs on 33 carries last season.
Lexington Catholic, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek all brought new head coaches into the fold this off-season.
Nigel Smith, a longtime defensive coordinator at Catholic, succeeded Mark Perry after he joined Neal Brown’s staff at Troy University. Dunbar called upon Wes Johnson, a former assistant, to take over the reins after letting go of Chris Mullins after only two seasons. Jonathan Smith took over at Tates Creek for Antoine Sims, who resigned following a job promotion, after 19 years as an assistant coach at various schools. Each faces a different set of expectations.
The Knights finished 7-6 but found themselves in the region championship for the 13th straight season, a level of consistency shared by no other team in the area. Smith has coached under the last three Catholic head coaches and is the fourth man to assume that role, and looks forward to challenging Boyle County for supremacy in the district.
“We know they can do a lot of good things but we want them to be able to do better things, cause we want to be better than we were last year if we want to get to our goals,” Smith said. “Nothing less than a state championship. Nobody who comes through these halls should expect any less. If you expect less, you’ll do less.”
Tates Creek was 9-3 last year, finishing with the program’s most wins since a 10-4 campaign in 2001. The Commodores lost 19 seniors to graduation and may have a tough time replicating that success, but Smith believes the team is on the right track.
“Some of our skill positions have got talent but they haven’t been able to put a show out on Friday nights because they’ve been backups to guys that have been playing two or three years on the varsity level,” Smith said. “ ... The one thing I’ll say about this team is it feels like more of a family. These kids went out, about 54 of them, went out and ate Zaxby’s after practice the other night and I like that. When you’re playing for not yourself, but for the team, that’s when you make that step in the right direction.”
Dunbar has the most room for improvement, record-wise. The Bulldogs didn’t make the playoffs after going 0-10 last season and haven’t won a postseason game since 2013. Johnson is the team’s ninth head coach since 2000.
“I think you approach it like I tell the kids to approach ball games,” Johnson said. “Right now you can’t look at the scoreboard and think about what’s gonna happen next year or the year after. It’s concentrating on what’s important now and trying to focus all effort, whether it be the head coach, my assistant coaches, the players, focusing all effort on whatever task we have at hand.”