Sunday, August 31, 2008

Football leftovers ... Week 1

No one who knows the two teams well expected Mayfield to push Fort Campbell to the limit, but the Falcons' 50-7 win in the Jackson Purchase Alliance Bowl at Marshall County was a jolt to area high school football fans.

A lot were left asking ... is Fort Campbell that good? Or is Mayfield that down?

Mayfield has some questions right now with some young players in critical roles, but let's be honest ... Fort Campbell is that good. The Falcons return 11 starters and several key reserves from last year's Class 2A state championship team and ran roughshod over decent competition (Warren Central and two Clarksville schools that were a combined 18-5 a year ago) by a total score of 96-3 in its preseason scrimmages.

Little doubt remains that Fort Campbell is the best small-school team west of Louisville, and only Bowling Green or Christian County looks to be comparable on this side of the state.

It was Mayfield's worst loss since the 2004 season, when a beat-up bunch of Cardinals were ripped 63-10 at Evansville (Ind.) North but still managed to make it to the semifinals.

• Calloway County football coach Josh McKeel may have felt his team got a little more of a scare than it should have against archrival Murray, but McKeel is realistic and looking at the big picture. The Lakers were down two key two-way starters — Grant Williams and Logan Burks, both offensive linemen and a defensive end and linebacker, respectively that would have made Calloway's run defense a little stouter.

And, of course, quarterback Casey Brockman was a little off his best game after missing most of preseason practice with a broken left (non-throwing) hand.

"We didn't look as sharp on offense," McKeel said. "Part of that is missing two linemen and part of it is Casey just coming back. Our passing game wasn't as crisp as it usually is. A lot of the timing is missing between Casey and our receivers."

Which side of the ball did the Lakers miss Williams and Burks the most? Both are expected back within two or three weeks, although there is a slight chance that Williams could be cleared to practice this week.

"That's a good question," McKeel said. "I'd like to say the offense, but it hurts on defense, too. Hopefully we won't have to answer that question much longer."

• Paducah Tilghman coach Randy Wyatt has some reinforcements coming in the form of three potential impact transfers, two of them have already been cleared to play but must participate in the mandatory 10 full-contact practices per Kentucky High School Athletic Association rules.

Wyatt expects Blaze Copeland, a transfer from Reidland, to see time at linebacker and wide receiver. DeAndre Foulks, a move-in from Texas, could help at receiver and defensive end. Tilghman is still awaiting an eligibility ruling on DeAndre Motton, who came in from Missouri at the start of school. He could help at receiver and in the secondary.

Tilghman already puts more speed on the field than any Class 3A team, with the possible exception of defending state champion Louisville Central. The additions could also make the Tornado as deep as any team in 3A.

• Surprise teams ... Murray will be a legitimate threat to win the Class 2A district race. The Tigers are solid up front, one area where district rivals Trigg County and Caldwell County are vulnerable, have a couple of playmakers and are ultra-enthusiastic under new coach Steve Duncan, the former defensive coordinator at Lone Oak. Some in Murray are already wondering how long they can hold on to Duncan.

Crittenden County's rout of Lake County in the Alliance Bowl was a mild shock. Lake County had beaten Trenton Peabody (10-4 and a Class 2A semifinalist last fall) in its first game. The Rockets did virtually all of the damage on the ground — running back Rodney Robertson rambled for 256 yards and five touchdowns, and Crittenden had 425 rushing yards. The Rockets next meet Lone Oak in Caldwell County's Trice Hughes Bowl, a matchup that looks more interesting now than it did a few days ago.

Hopkinsville, which beat Trigg in the Jerry Claiborne Bowl, has improved quite a bit and figures to be part of an interesting three-team race in the Class 5A district. Receiver Victor Moulden is a gamebreaker and the Tigers have more speed and athleticism than they had a year ago. Christian County and Owensboro, who knocked off perennial Indiana power Evansville Reitz 18-14 on opening night, will make this a race to watch.

Owensboro is coached by former Mayfield star lineman Joe Prince, who had successful stints at Ohio County, Union County and Louisville Eastern before becoming a Red Devil. Under Prince's tenure, Owensboro is customarily vanilla on offense but lethal with its defense and special-teams play.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Class 4A extras ...

We're getting closer to the start of high school football season, which means we're also winding down The Paducah Sun's series of previews. Today, we take a little closer look at a Class 4A race that figures to be one of the most interesting in western Kentucky, with three teams that feel as if they have a legitimate chance to win the district title.

Calloway County — on paper, at least — looks like the district favorite, with Hopkins Central and Lone Oak also expected to be in contention. One advantage for Lone Oak is that it gets both the Lakers and Storm at home, and even if that delivers another district title to Lone Oak, it doesn't mean the Purple Flash will have the same travel-friendly playoff road that it had last year.

This is an even-numbered year (2008, right?), so the odd-numbered districts and regions will hit the road during the postseason. That means there is a good possibility that the District 2 champion (either Warren East or Franklin-Simpson) hosts the regional championship game for a berth in the state semifinals.

Warren East returns 13 starters, including Louisville-bound running back-linebacker Shenard Holton, from the squad that lost to Lone Oak on a late field goal in the state semifinals. Franklin-Simpson's talent level has been down somewhat over the last few years, but word is that coach Tim Schlosser (a former Mayfield star and assistant coach) feels the Wildcats have the speed and athleticism to make a run. Franklin-Simpson's Courtney Dalcourt, a speedy quarterback and defensive back, is getting some Division I interest, particularly from Kentucky.

• There is no word yet on the status of Calloway County quarterback Casey Brockman for the Lakers' opener with archrival Murray on Friday night. Brockman broke his left (non-throwing) hand in a practice session a few weeks ago and has been able to work out and throw on the side. Indications are his status will be a game-time decision.

Coach Josh McKeel doesn't have a problem with the notion that the Lakers could be this year's version of Lone Oak — a senior-dominated team that makes an unprecedented playoff run. In its 30 or so years of varsity football, Calloway has never advanced farther than the state quarterfinals. The Lakers have done it twice, losing to Franklin-Simpson in 1981 and Hopkinsville in 1996.

"You win football games with upperclassmen," McKeel said. "We've got to stay healthy, and you've got to have some breaks along the way.

"We've added some different wrinkles, defensively, but it's experience as much as anything that will make us better. We're a year older and stronger and more experienced."

• Jamarielle Brown's move to quarterback wasn't one that Lone Oak coach Jack Haskins made lightly. And although the Purple Flash is committed to the idea of Brown running a spread-option type of attack, there remains a chance that Lone Oak could return to the pass-happy offense it showed last year, with Brown back at his natural position of receiver.

Lone Oak has a talented sophomore quarterback waiting in the wings in 6-foot-5 Conrad Gholson, and it wouldn't be shocking to see him move into the starting lineup sometime this year, putting Brown back in a role as a game breaking receiver than can stretch the defense.

"It could happen," Haskins said. "Conrad's got talent and a good arm. We'll see how things develop."

Chances are the Flash offense already has a package of plays in place to utilize Gholson — Lone Oak's coaching staff did such a thing for Brown a year ago, although it was never used during the playoff run.

• Hopkins Central's program has undergone some drastic changes since the Storm started to become a factor in western Kentucky football circles in the 1990s. Back then, the Storm regularly fielded huge offensive and defensive lines with an emphasis on the running game.

In recent years, the Storm has adopted a spread offense to fit its stable of athletes. The linemen aren't normally as big and strong, but Hopkins Central has a veritable arsenal of speedsters right now in Kelsey Bowman, Troydale Rorer and brothers Keith and Kevin Couch.

Coach Rick Snodgrass feels it's a unit better than the one he had in 2005, when Hopkins Central put up a lot of points with the best skill-position corps in far western Kentucky.

"We've got more depth and these guys are a little more physical than that bunch was," Snodgrass said. "We're stronger and faster. We feel like that anybody we get the ball to can make plays for us.

"Rorer is a really special kid. He's big and fast and strong and he's a playmaker. And our quarterback (Jacob Powell) is a good athlete and the strongest kid on our team. He's like another running back."

• Muhlenberg North coach Shane Sams is in year three of a massive rebuilding project.

Actually, "rebuilding" is a misleading term. The Stars haven't been competitive at all in recent years and only last year snapped a 34-game losing streak that dated back to September 2004, beating Ballard Memorial late last season. Three years ago, the program barely had enough player to field a team. Muhlenberg North hasn't had a winning season since 1998, when it was playing as an independent and not competing for a district title.

"We're kind of in the middle of our five-year plan for a turnaround," said Sams, who played for perennial power Corbin. "We have 25 players in the sophomore class, and that's who we're building the whole team around. Our numbers are right at 50, and we've done a really good job of building that up."

The Stars will play six consecutive road games after this week's opener with Muhlenberg South, with which it shares a field.

"We had a team (Louisville Evangel) drop us, and it was either that or just play nine games," Sams said.

It isn't inconceivable, however, that North could be 4-0 going into its first district game with Hopkins Central — the Stars' first four opponents are Muhlenberg South, Clinton County (in its second year of varsity competition), Todd Central and Reidland. Those four schools were a combined 4-38 last fall.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Class 2A extras ...

It's two days down and four to go in The Paducah Sun's football playoff preview series. Today we focus on the Class 2A district race in far western Kentucky, which may be one of the most wide-open in the area.

Who's the favorite? Trigg County gets the nod here, although Caldwell County has some experienced hands back from Tigers squads that have beaten Trigg in each of the last two regular-season meetings. And no one will be surprised if Murray makes a run under new head coach Steve Duncan, who was credited with a big part of Lone Oak's turnaround last year as the Purple Flash's offensive coordinator.

One thing we do know ... none of these teams will be favored to advance to the state semifinals. That distinction goes to defending state champion Fort Campbell, which returns 11 starters but could face a challenge from perennial power Owensboro Catholic.

We could get an early preview of some of those potential playoff matchups on Halloween night, when Murray visits Owensboro Catholic in its regular-season finale and Trigg hits the road to try and avenge last season's 59-7 loss to Fort Campbell.

• There were two primary reasons for Trigg County's defensive struggles a year ago — injuries forced the Wildcats into putting some young and inexperienced players on the field, and the defense struggled to find an identity thanks to a change in schemes.

When Trigg went back to the high-pressure scheme favored by former coach Curtis Higgins, the defense straightened out a bit. Shannon Burcham, who was once Higgins' defensive coordinator, will keep the same approach although he intends to rotate coverages in the secondary, unlike Higgins' favored press man-to-man coverage.

"It fits our personnel better," Burcham said. "We were so young last year, and people kept breaking stuff on us over the top."

Foremost among the changes — several players will go both ways, either more so than they have in the past or for the first time. Brandon Bridges, a three-year starter in the backfield, will play linebacker for the first time in his career. Quarterback Donald Bush, a returnee at linebacker, "will play (both way) more than anybody." That list also includes running back Antonio Grubbs at linebacker and receiver Will Stagner at defensive end.

The defense will be sorely tested. Hopkinsville, the Wildcats' opening-night opponent, looks to be much improved from last season, and Christian County — generally considered a top-10 team in Class 5A — looms large in late October.

• One of the characteristics of David Barnes' first two teams at Caldwell County has been a slow start. In both seasons, it took the Tigers about three or four weeks to iron out some early-season problems.

For several reasons, Barnes thinks his team can avoid it this year.

"We didn't tackle well in our first scrimmage, but we'll work on that," Barnes said. "And a big positive is that our guys are experienced in running the (spread) offense — several of them have already played a lot, even if they're just now (first-time starters)."

Sophomore Brandon Sigler was moved from a slot receiver position to running back "and feels more comfortable where he's at," Barnes said, and speedy Marcus Wimbleduff makes the opposite move. And, of course, Caldwell has a coach-on-the-field type in quarterback Will Barnes, the coach's son.

Caldwell also has skill-position depth. Barnes plans to use linebacker Kody McGregor at several positions. "We can move him around and he's a guy that we need to get the ball to," said Barnes, who also expects linebacker John Paul Boitnott and defensive lineman Tron Gray to spell his offensive regulars. "Kody can help us give a lot of those guys some rest, because they're playing defense, too."

• Murray coach Steve Duncan says he will run some spread offense and some out of the wishbone set, but the Tigers have been run-oriented in preseason scrimmages.

Jamie King, one of the area's best tailbacks, will be the Tigers' primary playmaker.

"He's really good at following blocks and seeing the field," Duncan said of King, who will also see some action at defensive end. "We've got some good athletes to get the ball to, and I'd like to be a 50-50 (run-pass) kind of team."

Zach Buck will move from the offensive line to tight end, giving quarterback Jordan Garland a big target. The defense got some move-in help from sophomore Christian Duncan, the coach's son. He will start in the secondary.

Duncan also wonders if his team will be ready for the "meat of our schedule in the first five games." Archrival Calloway County is the opener, and the Tigers take on district rivals Trigg County and Caldwell County — ranked by most as the top two teams in the district — in mid-September. Indeed, under the scheduling grid adopted by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association a year ago, Murray will play three of its district opponents in the first five games of the season.

• Wags often joked the last three seasons that Heath's primary three offensive plays were "(Chad) Wright left, Wright right and Wright up the middle."

Wright, now playing baseball at the University of Kentucky, ran for more than 5,700 yards and scored 55 touchdowns in that span, and gone with him is a big chunk of the Pirates' offense. Assuming his role is sophomore Jacob Lynn, who filled in well when Wright battled a shoulder injury at times last fall.

"He's comparable to Chad," new coach Cory Tilford said. "He's got good vision and patience, he's strong and he's hard to bring down. He's 5-9 and about 200 pounds."

Heath's spread attack will certainly diversify things. Quarterback Tra Tharp has great speed and quickness and has adapted to his new role quicker than Tilford expected. "Early on, he had happy feet," Tilford said. "Now he waits and takes off in the right direction instead of just trying to get outside. Teams will have to honor his ability to run."

• Reidland coach Jeff Sturm, whose team was down to less than 20 players at the end of last season, worked the halls over the winter and coaxed some former players to come back out for the program.

"Those guys can really set the tone for us by being more aggressive," Sturm said.

Offensively, Sturm feels the Greyhounds have a good mix of power backs (Kenny Turner and David Perry) to go with "(Carlos) Rayburn and (Devin) Forbis, who we can slide back there for a little more speed. We're still young up front, though. If we can block, we can have some success."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Class A extras ...

Hope you enjoyed our preview on Class A football in far western Kentucky. Here are some random musings left over from talking to area coaches ...

• If the new playoff format looks a lot like the old one, it's because it is. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association went back to the format used from 1991-2005, when teams crossed over into other districts in the first round of the playoffs.

In Class A, that means some long road trips for some teams in Districts 1 and 2. District 1 is anchored in far western Kentucky; District 2 is centered in the Louisville area. Whichever teams finish third and fourth in their respective districts will have to make road trips of three hours or more.

The best bets to earn home games in District 2 are perennial power Louisville Holy Cross and relative newcomer Bethlehem, the Catholic school in Bardstown. So that means that if Fulton County hits the road for its playoff opener, it's looking at a 260-plus mile road trip.

Ain't that a lot of fun?

• Mayfield head coach Joe Morris has been his own offensive coordinator for several seasons but elected to take over the defense after longtime coordinator Brad Lawson left to join the staff at Paducah Tilghman. Stephen Hatchell, a former quarterback at archrival Graves County who played college football at Murray State and Campbellsville, will do the offensive play-calling for the Cardinals.

Hatchell may open up the offense a little. Mayfield's running game has always been its bread-and-butter and will continue as such, but reports from the Cardinals' scrimmages are that they may be spreading the field a little more than they have in the past.

• Crittenden County won't be fielding the team it expected to last spring, thanks to two projected key starters moving away and two others opting not to play football this fall. Nevertheless, coach Al Starnes insists he's enjoying preseason practice.

"We've had no distractions," Starnes said. "These kids are working hard and they're fun to coach. We don't have to worry about suspensions — the last three years, we've had a major player ineligible or suspended or leave and decide not to play. Last season, we started out with some internal issues (two players were dismissed from the squad and another was ineligible), started out 0-5 and finally pulled some things together and finished on a positive note. We played Mayfield tough in the playoffs and lost 24-21."

• Jacquise Lockett will take over Dae'Ron Williams' role as Fulton City's featured running back. Coach Wayne Lohaus feels he's up to the task.

"He was mainly our fullback last year, and statistically, he had a better year as a sophomore than Dae'Ron did," Lohaus said. "He's a different type of runner. He's bigger, stronger and more powerful, although Dae'Ron had more speed and finesse."

The Bulldogs look a little thin in the offensive and defensive lines, and Lohaus is worried about the defense, especially the secondary. "The first two teams we play (Tennessee teams West Carroll and South Fulton) don't throw that much, but Crittenden is our third game and they can throw it. We're not as quick in the back as we were last year, when we had Dae'Ron and Blake Lawson back there."

• Ballard Memorial coach Chris Cooper thinks he has a backfield that can match up with any in Class A with Taylor Edging, Nathan Bledsoe and former quarterback Josh Bourff sharing the ball. The new quarterback is sophomore Alex Mallory.

Cooper was an offensive lineman at Paducah Tilghman in the late 1980s and he's hoping to rebuild Ballard's program in that mold. He's especially sold on the concept of emphasizing speed, particularly on the defense.

And he thinks Ballard could be a powerhouse program some days. "We're fighting for a state championship, not just for wins," Cooper said. "Are those high expectations for us? Of course, but other teams have turned it around, too."

• James Bridges, now the coach at Fulton County, was a star two-way lineman in his day in Pilot blue and gold and later started at defensive tackle for Murray State. He has some beef on his current roster with 6-8, 300-pound Jacob Goodman and 6-2, 320-pound Kadarius Bransford.

He's also counting heavily on a pair of freshmen in the offense in running back LaDevin Fair and receiver Derrick Swift. Defense is a concern, because the Pilots could start three or four freshmen on that side of the ball.

There aren't many Class A teams that play a tougher non-district schedule than the Pilots, who open with Hopkins Central and later play Calloway County — both teams are expected to be regional contenders in Class 4A. Fulton County also meets Trigg County and Murray, who could end up as the top two teams in their Class 2A district.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

C.C. Sabathia ... how much is too much?

Milwaukee pitcher C.C. Sabathia has been exactly what the Brewers wanted when they traded for him before the All-Star break — the ace-quality pitcher they needed to get a talented young team into the post season.

Sabathia wasn't as dominating as usual on Monday night, but he threw his fifth complete game in nine starts in a 9-2 win over Houston. And there was the nagging feeling that Milwaukee manager Ned Yost is taking the idea of "riding your workhorse" a bit too seriously.

He threw 130 pitches, a career high, against Houston, which was really unnecessary. Sabathia had thrown 111 through eight innings, and with a 9-2 lead it wouldn't have been a problem to bring in a reliever to close out the ninth — indeed, Guillermo Mota was throwing in the bullpen, and ESPN analyst Steve Phillips was questioning the move before the inning started.

Milwaukee's counter is that it already knew Sabathia would get an extra day of rest before his next start on Sunday, and it makes sense — Boston gave Jon Lester an extra day of rest after his 130-pitch no-hitter against Kansas City earlier this season, and put him on a strict 90-pitch limit to boot. Still ... why take the risk with Sabathia, a guy that threw more than 250 innings last season and is likely to do it again this year, with a seven-run lead in the ninth?

The Brewers have taken some heat for their handling of Sabathia, who is essentially a three-month rental for them before he becomes a free agent this winter. But he actually hasn't had too many high pitch counts — he's been so efficient that his pitch count has been under 115 in six of his nine starts.

This one, however, deserves some criticism. And it will be interesting to see how Sabathia bounces back in his next two or three starts.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Calloway's injury woes ...

Calloway County has three key starters who are questionable for the Lakers' regular-season opener with arch rival Murray on Aug. 29. Quarterback Casey Brockman has a broken bone in his left (non-throwing) hand, an injury suffered in a defensive drill, and two-way lineman Grant Williams (an offensive lineman on The Paducah Sun's Pepsi Mid-America all-star team last fall) was diagnosed with a crack in his collarbone on Thursday, hours before the Lakers' pre-season scrimmage with projected Class 5A power Christian County.

Brockman and Williams sat out the scrimmage, and offensive lineman Logan Burks went down late in the affair with a dislocated kneecap. The kneecap was popped back into place on the sideline, but it appears that Burks could also be out for two or three weeks.

The hope is that all three will be available when the Lakers host Murray, but don't expect Calloway coach Josh McKeel to push them into action prematurely, especially because he wants to ensure they're healthy when his team travels to defending Class 4A state runner-up Lone Oak to open district play on Sept. 26.

Junior Jordan Burkeen started at quarterback in the scrimmage, but the Lakers' best backup appears to be receiver-defensive back Austin Hargrove, who came in late in the varsity portion of the scrimmage but showed off some nifty field vision and cutback ability in ripping off a pair of long runs, one for a touchdown.

Brockman, however, remains the key to the Lakers' offense. He's been getting some Division I-AA interest (from Murray State, Illinois State and Southern Illinois, among others) and he brings to the table a package not too much unlike that of Lone Oak's Corey Robinson — accuracy in the short- and medium-passing game and the ability to scramble away from pressure.

He won't post Robinson's numbers or contend for the state's Mr. Football award, but it isn't too far-fetched to imagine him leading the Lakers on a playoff run similar to what Lone Oak pulled off last season.

As for the scrimmage ... it's always difficult to read too much into scrimmages, particularly since the Lakers were so shorthanded, but Christian scored three times and Calloway punched it into the end zone twice.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Football news ... missing players

The two teams expected to battle for the Class A district title will be without key players.

Word from Crittenden County is that tailback Jeramie Sorina and his brother Zeke, a 300-pound lineman, have moved to the Chicago area. The Rockets are also without defensive end Alex Wood, who is going to concentrate on baseball, and Alex Fritz, another two-way starter that decided not to play.

Mayfield will be missing sophomore tailback-defensive back DeCole Noonan, who was the Cardinals' second-leading rusher last year, for academic and disciplinary reasons.

St. Mary's baseball future ... Roofs and Haases

Lawrence Durbin is taking over St. Mary's baseball program this fall, as we reported earlier this week, and there is talk in the St. Mary community about a master plan, of sorts, that plots out the program for the next decade or so.

Don't be surprised if former major leaguer Phil Roof is in the Vikings' dugout in coming years, as he has some grandchildren expected to be in the program. Roof spent more than a decade in the big leagues as a catcher, then spent the next 30 years as a coach and manager on the minor league and major league levels, most recently as the manager of the Minnesota Twins' Triple-A team in Salt Lake City.

Then, the story goes, former St. Mary star Chris Haas would take over about the time that his son and nephew get into the program. Chris was a first-round draft choice out of St. Mary in 1995, but never made it to the major leagues.

I've always kidded Chris — who was coached by his father, Louis Haas, in high school — that in a few years, he and older brother Andy Haas will be in the coaching boxes with their father in the dugout, still calling the shots. Looks like it could be reality in a little less than a decade.