Henry Clay linebacker Clark Dupree said Henry Clay's heartbreaking 37-34 loss to Scott County in the Class 6A playoffs last November "is still a painful memory."
If the Blue Devils had won, they might have been the ones who celebrated a state championship two weeks later instead of Scott County.
"We don't want to dwell on it, but we do want to remember it and use it as motivation this year," Dupree said.
Henry Clay Coach Sam Simpson took pride in his team's 9-3 record and competitive attitude last season. It was a return to the program's high standards. From 1998 through 2011, the Devils averaged nine wins a year before suffering back-to-back losing seasons.
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"When I first got here we climbed the mountain and we were pretty good year after year," said Simpson, who's starting his 22nd season at Henry Clay. "Then we hit a spot where several players, especially some of the good ones, thought it was just going to happen and they didn't work for it. As a result, we got beat back down a little bit.
"Last year was a progression toward getting back up the mountain."
Simpson thinks Henry Clay could climb even higher this season. The Devils have striking speed at the skill positions; big, mobile linemen, and quality depth and experience among 28 seniors.
Gone are dynamic running backs Elijah Bell and D.J. Jackson, who ran for 3,344 yards and 39 touchdowns between them last season. But Henry Clay is loaded with speed again.
Simpson said this is the fastest team he's ever had.
Rhoman James, who started at quarterback as a sophomore, will be at the controls as a senior. He's one of the state's top sprinters in track.
"It looks like his feet will be doing more talking than his arm," Simpson said. "But if you load the box, he can burn you throwing the ball."
Colby Barnes and Gunner Kelly are veteran receivers. Barnes, a big target at 6-foot-3, has 57 catches, 940 yards and eight TDs over the last two years. Kelly had 17 catches for 173 yards and a TD last fall. Brothers Brayden and Bryan Berezowitz are sure-handed tight ends.
Henry Clay has a stable of running backs. Joquise Buford, who ran for 300 yards and four TDs last season, and Austin Bledsoe, another speed-burner, will start.
Davonte Robinson and Sydney Hugle, standouts on defense, will get some touches too. Robinson won the 100-meter dash in 3A track, and, along with James, was part of the state champion 4-by-200 relay. Hugle and James were part of the state champion 4-by-100 relay.
As fast as the Devils are, that doesn't define this team. "We're more than just speed," senior Jordan Vaughn said. "We have one of the strongest offensive and defensive lines in the state by far."
Vaughn is part of the offensive line, which is anchored by 6-foot-3, 280-pound all-state center Sullivan Simpson, the coach's son. Jordan Forsythe, Derrick Thomas and Michael Blythe are also up front.
Henry Clay's defense has size and speed, too.
Elijah Barnett and Griffin Brixey are at tackle, and Maurice Gibson at nose guard. Joe Green, Webb VanMeter and Dominick Buckler are outside linebackers who can run. Dupree, Keshawn Johnson-Sanders, John York and D'Shaun Locke will rotate at inside linebacker.
James is a standout at corner. Coady Murner will start there, too. Robinson, who led the team in tackles last year, and Hugle cover a lot of ground at safety.
Robinson, a 6-1, 170-pound junior, already has an offer from Kentucky.
"Collectively, we're bigger, stronger and faster, and overall better at more positions," Sam Simpson said.
"But," he added, "until you're a champion, you're never sure if you're working like a champion needs to work."