Family honor

Scott County senior running back Philip Garner, right, shares a moment with his freshman brother, Paul, after the Cardinals’ 24-14 playoff loss at Frederick Douglass.

Scott County football coach Jim McKee steered almost every post-game conversation in two directions this fall.

McKee’s initial, recurrent talking point from the first sweat-soaked summer walkthroughs: We aren’t going anywhere.

Those words, of course, were targeted at anyone who believed the Cardinals’ superlative gridiron achievements showed sheer strength in numbers, and that the wins would taper off with the launch of Great Crossing around the block.

He later paired that proclamation with a second soliloquy, a preemptive strike after the Cards’ lone regular-season loss at Frederick Douglass.

The season, McKee declared, shouldn’t be construed as a failure if SC didn’t reach the late rounds of the KHSAA Class 5A state tournament.

Timing is everything, of course, and McKee frequently served up those defenses of a program that never needs one after Scott County decimated another old 6A rival or new 5A district foe.

Seven of SC’s 10 wins this season — making it a dozen consecutive years they’ve reached the latter milestone, the longest active streak in the state — ended with a running clock.

Scott County averaged more than 50 points per game in those victories. They were nearly that prolific in come-from-behind wins over Louisville 6A stalwarts DuPont Manual and Ballard, the latter in overtime. 

So I suppose it’s redundant to say so, but the outspoken architect of central Kentucky’s most consistent, enduring powerhouse program is absolutely right.

The 2019 campaign requires no apologies or asterisks after this past Friday’s 24-14 loss to undefeated, thorn-in-the-side Frederick Douglass.

While it ousted the Cardinals from the postseason in only the second round (of five) for the first time in five years, the loss showed SC’s relentless grit as it fought to even the score from an agonizing 36-0 less seven weeks ago.

Think what you will about Frederick Douglass’ social media bluster, its acquisition of blue-chip talent from all over Lexington and parts unknown, and its continued insistence on referring to SC as “TTUN” (That Team Up North) instead of its full name.

In only three years, the Broncos have built a program that’s untouchable in their city. A pair of two-way tackles and the leading receiver will end up at high Division I schools. There’s no shortage of athletes around them, either. 

If the advantage of its sheer horsepower isn’t enough, Douglass clearly relishes its status as the “heel” from pro wrestling central casting. As evidenced by his unforgettable “King of the 859” speech that went viral after last year’s playoff win, McKee and SC don’t mind returning the favor.

The Broncos and Cardinals clearly get under one another’s skin. Neither team performs up to its customary, mistake-free, disciplined level when it’s staring down the other. 

For the first time in the brief but bitter rivalry,  playing anywhere beneath its standard wouldn’t be good enough for Scott County against Frederick Douglass this fall.

The coach’s many advance words preparing people for the worst-case outcome confirm that he knew it. SC’s margin for error against Douglass was small. Not 1980 U.S. hockey team against the Russians or Evansville basketball versus UK tiny, but a very narrow window. 

The Cards couldn’t afford penalties or turnovers, and those happened too frequently, particularly in the tone-setting first quarter. Compared to the prep-level talent across the field, Scott County didn’t have the sure-thing, all-state likes of Bryan Hudson, Colby McKee, Glenn Covington, Cooper Robb or Berk Watts to counter Douglass’ highlight-film ability.

By golly, it had guts, guile and passion for the game, though.

If you’re ever embroiled in a war, I highly recommend having Cade McKee, Philip Garner, Bronson Brown, Austin Taylor, John Hulette, Mikaleb Coffey, Micah McClave, Rylan Reed, Sam Daniel and the rest of SC’s whopping 30 seniors on your side.

Numbers against normal opponents didn’t lie. Almost half the younger McKee’s completed passes went for touchdowns. Garner and Brown each hurdled 1,000 yards rushing, the seventh time in nine years the Cards have put both halves of their inside-outside tandem over that milestone.

Defensively, led by the relentless Reed and Daniel, Scott County served up back-to-back shutouts for the first time in five seasons and held three other opponents to a single score.

The concept of collective strength being greater than the sum of the parts has always been a decidedly Cardinal trait. SC arguably had less God-given ability across the board than Trinity (2012), Elder (2015), Lafayette (2016), LaSalle and St. Xavier (2017) and Male (2018). It never stopped them from pushing those teams to the brink and earning their keep for every nanosecond of the game. Friday night was no exception. 

Frederick Douglass just may march on and hoist the 5A hardware. Covington Catholic certainly has other ideas. Bowling Green will have its say before anything is chiseled in stone. 

Two losses to a juggernaut notwithstanding, this year’s Scott County accomplishments don’t fall shy of any of the Cardinal teams that made deep playoff runs this decade. 

SC was a top-three team in 5A. The Cards’ performance against Manual and Ballard, and a down year for the large schools overall, indicates they probably would have been worthy of the same ranking in their old 6A neighborhood.

There was no drop-off this season, not by a long shot, nor will we see one in the foreseeable future. Scott County’s huge sophomore class went undefeated at the junior varsity level and saw ample varsity time. Its freshmen grew in both numbers and performance throughout the fall and won a 7-6 donnybrook against Great Crossing to close it out. 

(There is room enough for two powerful, proud programs in this county, by the way. That gap will continue to close, and it should be viewed as both a complement to our infrastructure and talent base and the new school’s drive to succeed, not as some sort of slippage by the old guard).

As Lafayette’s return to normalcy and the highs and lows of other Lexington schools have shown over the years, the success of the “teams down south” runs in cycles.

Around here, the wheels just keep turning. 

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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