For Glicod Communications
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. — You know the household names. At least if you have remotely followed Kentucky high school football over the years you do.
Trinity. St. X. Highlands. Bowling Green, Boyle County. Beechwood. There are others, of course.
And you know those mighty good programs that have annual success and are mighty good but haven’t quite reached that status of longtime power. They’ve had extended runs of success, but have never been fortunate enough to win the big trophy or make it to the state championship game.
I think of that incredible run South Oldham has had under Coach Jamie Reed over the past decade. Eight straight district titles, a regional championship or two, but never in the final. Some of that obviously has to do with the luck of the draw, especially in the state semifinal round, but, rightly or wrongly, the perception remains that the Dragons are really good but not elite.
And then there are those programs trying to make their first big splash beyond their hometowns.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Spencer County Bears.
Like most public high school athletic programs, they’ve had their ups and downs since the program began in 2004. They’ve had some very good teams in the last decade, but have never really been noticed much beyond Taylorsville.
That could change in 2021.
“We know we are not the household name that a lot of people know,” Spencer coach Mike Marksbury said after the Bears rolled past Anderson County in Friday’s season opener. “When people watch us play, they see that our kids play with a lot of pride.”
Spencer rolled to a 35-14 win that might have been even more one-sided than the score would indicate.
The Bears dominated from the outset, methodically driving for a touchdown in their first possession of the season. Camden Cardwell did the honors from eight yards out, stretching just far enough to get the ball over the goal line before going down.
The Bears scored when Wade Hutt got free for an 80-yard run on third-and-28 on the last play from scrimmage in the first quarter.
Third. And. 28.
And Spencer dominated with an approach that was as old-school as Matt Dillon or Ben Cartwright.
There was nothing fancy. No grid pyrotechnics. Just an attack based on solid blocking, fundamental tackling and playing hard.
“We have a system,” Marksbury said. “This is my 11th year here and we have a system. We haven’t changed much and do what we do. Sometimes people get a little upset because they watch stuff on Saturdays and Sundays and see balls being thrown all over the field, be we think we have a recipe for success and we enjoy what we do.”
Friday night, Spencer outgained Anderson 417 yards to 167, according to Spencer’s stat crew. The Bears threw just four passes, completing two. One, an eight-yard toss from Gabe Bowling to Eli Ballard went for a third-quarter touchdown.
To be fair, this Anderson team is in a major rebuilding process. A Class 5A Top 10 program for most of the last decade, the Bearcats have hit one of those down cycles that eventually hit most small-town programs. Anderson has lost 15 straight and, to the casual observer, had few bright spots beyond fifth-year senior Isaiah Fitzpatrick, who ran for a game-high 152 yards.
So, it would not be wise to pencil Spencer in as a team to be making travel reservations in late November and early December. But it would also be foolish to overlook as team that was so dominant and so fundamentally sound in its season opener.
Five different Spencer backs ran for more than 50 yards, led by Hutt’s 146. Cardwell lowered his head for three touchdowns. And the Bear defense gave up only 15 yards apart from scoring runs of 80 and 37 yards by the speedy Fitzpatrick.
And Spencer did that even though it was not at full strength. COVID-19 saw to that. “I have three kids who were quarantined for close contacts in the classroom,” Marksbury said. “It was our starting safety, our starting nose guard and a backup defensive end.”
But barring major injuries or COVID quarantines, the Bears are able to do something unusual in high school football, almost unheard of at Class 4A and down. “One thing people don’t realize is we had one kid playing on both sides of the ball,” Marksbury said. “We have 11 guys on offense and when they come off the field, only one of them (Cardwell) stays out there. That was a huge deal on a night like tonight when it’s hot and it’s humid. We sat them in chairs over there (on the sideline) and hydrated them and coached them.
“And they accept the coaching.”
To watch Spencer is to watch a team that is obviously well-coached. The offensive line is not big but stays on its blocks. The backs have good speed but won’t be setting any sprint records, preferring to read their blocks and take what was given. Remember those five backs exceeding 50 yards? Only one, Hutt, averaged in double-figure yardage, a reminder that his 80-yard jaunt was one of his eight carries.
“We have some things to clean up, but it’s no secret we like to run the ball,” Marksbury said. “We can throw the ball if we need to.”
Spencer is building for a big 2021 season the way most high schools must. There’s some talent in several classes and there’s experience. “We have 12 seniors in all,” Marksbury said. “We have 12 seniors contribute. We have a bunch of juniors. We have some good sophomores too. In our backfield, we have a senior fullback and the rest are juniors and sophomores. We have some seniors in the offensive line.”
Hutt, Cardwell and Bowling are all juniors. Marksbury’s son, Kellen, is a sophomore who picked up 67 yards.
But there’s a reason, few see Spencer as a big-time threat. Marksbury could only smile when asked about that fact.
“We have never won the district,” he said. “Every year, our goal is to win the district. It’s what we are striving for. In 2015 and 2016 we had really good teams but were in a tough district with Franklin County and Collins and Shelby County. Those two years, we finished as runner-up to Shelby County.”
The realignment that went into effect in 2019 now has Spencer grouped with John Hardin, Moore, Marion County and Valley. The Bears aren’t the favorite and have memories of playoff losses to John Hardin both years. Spencer did beat John Hardin during the 2019 regular season.
Marksbury says John Hardin has to be the district favorite, but the Bears believe they have a chance. “I am real proud of our kids,” he said. “I am proud of our coaching staff. Our staff works really hard. In the offseason, we did some soul searching and made some adjustments in our program. I’m excited.”
As he should be. Spencer County is a team that could make its first big splash in 2021.
**Oldham County got the TaShawn McBroom era off to a rousing start with a 35-29 win at Simon Kenton Friday. When we talked earlier this year, McBroom knew his team would be facing a monumental challenge in its opener, but believed in his team.
How big was that victory? While Simon Kenton is coming off a 3-7 season, one should never forget what a powerhouse the Pioneers have been in recent years.
From 2012-19, Simon Kenton averaged almost 11 wins a year and advanced at least to the regional final every season.
The last time Simon Kenton had tasted defeat in its season opener was in 2010 when it lost to Middletown, Ohio at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.
Oldham returns home Friday against a Shelby County team coming off a 62-7 loss to crosstown rival Collins.
**South Oldham also had a tough opener, dropping a 31-11 decision at Christian Academy of Louisville. But don’t fret for the Dragons as CAL had beaten South in 2017, 2018 and 2019 openers but the Dragons went on to record double digit win totals in each of those years.
South entertains Fairdale in its home opener Friday night.
**There were some surprises around Kentucky over the weekend.
Franklin County showed it is ready to pick up where it left off with an impressive 43-14 win over Scott County. That Franklin won might not have been a surprise, but the margin of victory certainly turned heads.
Woodford County, which has been slowly emerging over the last few years after years of struggling, routed a Glasgow team that went 7-3 last year in the Don Franklin Scottie Bowl.
Pulaski County’s 55-0 win over perennial Class 3A title contender Belfry indicates that Coach Johnny Hines’ Maroons’ reputation as an offensive juggernaut is well-deserved. Pulaski will likely be one of 5A’s best teams but to put a drubbing like that on a program like Belfry should turn some heads.
Never underestimate Highlands. The Bluebirds went 5-6 last year but got the Bob Sphire era off with a bang. Make that an explosion as Highlands knocked off defending 5A champ Bowling Green in the Rafferty’s Bowl Saturday in Bowling Green. Sphire built Lexington Catholic into a power before coaching in Georgia since 2006.
Sphire’s last win at Catholic? A 49-21 win over Bowling Green in the 2005 Class AAA state championship game.
**I attended the Spencer County at Anderson County game and one thing that jumped out was how the fans responded. While Anderson’s Warford Stadium only seats about 2,000, it was packed for a game between teams that are rivals in other sports but have rarely played on the gridiron. It was a raucous night for both fan bases and I am sure it was the same across Kentucky last week. We just want Friday Night Lights in the Bluegrass.
**It’s a long season and COVID is still a factor with teams hit by unexpected quarantines and cancellations. It has all of the ingredients of an unpredictable year.
THIS WEEK: I plan to be in Buckner as Oldham County hosts Shelby County. Stop by and say hello!