BUTTON ON POINT/South Warren quarterback, opportunistic defense carry Spartans past Highlands 49-14


They’ve made winning a habit at South Warren High School, and opening night at WKU’s Houchens-Smith Stadium would be no exception.

South Warren’s defense scored three touchdowns, and sophomore Bryce Button had an impressive debut as the Spartans’ starting quarterback, sending South to a resounding 49-14 victory over the Highlands Bluebirds in the opening game of the Rafferty’s Bowl on Saturday evening.

The outcome was never in doubt, and the Spartans may have let up a little on the accelerator in coasting to their first victory since last year’s KHSAA Class 5A state championship game, when South turned back Frederick Douglass High School 38-26 at Lexington’s Kroger Field.

Button completed 11 of 18 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, adding a quarterback sneak for a 1-yard touchdown run with 4:10 left in the first quarter. With his predecessor as South’s quarterback, WKU freshman Caden Veltkamp, watching from the sidelines, Button was a cool customer on the big stage.

“Our offense can probably be one of the best of the state,” Button said, “if we keep working at it. Caden’s a great guy, and we talk all the time. I know he had a special relationship with Gavin (Spurrier, Veltkamp’s predecessor who went on to play at Duke) … Caden’s a big part of my success.

“We’re always bouncing things off each other. I just had to trust in my guys out there and try to distribute the ball.”

Brandon Smith, the veteran South coach who was once a quarterback at WKU himself, was pleased with Bryce Button’s first game under the spotlight.

“Bryce looked comfortable out there,” Smith said, “and he made good decisions.”

Smith had reason to be enthused about his defense, which carried the Spartans to a 35-0 halftime lead.

Button got the ball to South teammate Bailey Shoemaker for a 25-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring, and K.J. Hardesty, the Spartans’ one-man wrecking crew at defensive tackle, scored on a 34-yard fumble return early in the second quarter. Preston Burns intercepted a Highlands pass and scored on a 35-yard return to make it 28-0, and Drew Givins added a 5-yard TD run to put the Spartans in front 35-0 at halftime.

Highlands got in the end zone twice in the second hlf, but the Bluebirds were hopelessly outmatched.

Button found Keegan Milby in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter, and South defensive back Colton Veltkamp, Caden’s kid brother, got in on the fun with a 28-yard interception return for a score just moments later.

It was 49-0, and pretty much time for the Bluebirds to call it a night.

But the rowdy South student section waited until the final few minutes before clanging their keys with the “Start the buses, start the buses” chant, and the Spartans could turn their attention to next Friday’s road trip to face the Hendersonville (Tennessee) Commandos.

Hendersonville was the only team to defeat South Warren during its 2021 championship season, using a strong fourth quarter to stop the Spartans 27-20.

Hardesty and Burns shared Defensive Player of the Game honors, while Button was an easy choice for the offensive MVP.

Hardesty wasn’t overly impressed with the performance, however, and admitted he’s looking forward to another shot at Hendersonville.

“I wouldn’t say it was great,” Hardesty said, “but we got the job done. (Hendersonville) got us last year, and we know they’re a pretty good team.”

Brandon Smith downplayed the revenge angle of the game, taking a more measured approach to the Spartans’ Week Two game.

“I’m more interested in figuring out where we’re at,” Smith said. “That game should help us there.”