COMMANDOS ON PARADE/Hendersonville’s ground game again spells doom for South Warren, 28-22


HENDERSONVILLE, TENNESSEE — South Warren High School’s football team had little trouble with the Highlands Bluebirds on Opening Night at WKU’s Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The Spartans’ defense scored three touchdowns, sophomore quarterback Bryce Button had plenty of time to find his receivers and South rolled to a 49-14 victory.

On a steamy Friday night, however, South Warren ran into a tough, aggressive Hendersonville (Tennessee) squad. Hendersonville is the same team that handed the Spartans their only loss in a brilliant 14-1 season last year, including the school’s third KHSAA state championship.

Hendersonville rolled with its momentum in the second half, using a steady ground game to edge the Spartans 28-22 at Memorial Stadium.

Stevin Mack, Hendersonville’s 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior tailback, needed just 15 carries to rush for 100 yards and three touchdowns.

“They’re a strong team,” South Warren star Christian Conyer said when it was over.

Veteran South coach Brandon Smith knew that all along. And now he has an open date to work with before the Spartans resume their schedule with another out-of-state road trip, a September 9 game against Gibson Southern in Fort Branch, Indiana.

Smith has seen plenty of the Commandos, and he believed last year’s 27-20 loss to Hendersonville fueled his team to excellence, over a four-month season that culminated at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field in Lexington. South knocked off Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School 38-26 to win the third state championship in the school’s 11-year history.

All that changed Friday night.

There were four lead changes on Friday night and a handful of missed opportunities for the Spartans. South showed plenty of resolve before falling short against the strapping Commandos, a semifinalist in the Tennessee Class 6A ranks last season.

“We’re just a young, inconsistent team right now,” Smith said in a somber tone afterward. “I don’t think I did a very good job coaching this team tonight. This game could tell you a lot, about where you are, as a team … None of these games coming up are going to get easier.”

As the Spartans left the field for the buses waiting outside the stadium, Smith met with his sophmore quarterback, Bryce Button, who struggled in the face of Hendersonville’s relentless pass rush in the fourth quarter. The Commandos’ fans, meanwhile, converged at the opposite end zone to celebrate a second consecutive victory over its high-profile opponent from Kentucky.

Hendersonville coach James Beasley told Andy Telli of that the Commandos knew what they were up against, and South Warren had the upper hand for nearly the entire first half.

Then, in the final two minutes before halftime, Hendersonville quickly came to life.

Stevin Mack scored on a 10-yard run, trimming the Commandos’ lead to 10-7, and South’s Bryce Button was intercepted by Hendersonville’s Justin Zuger to create another scoring opportunity.

This time, quarterback Mason Baker scored on a 10-yard run, with 30 seconds left in the half, and suddenly the Spartans trailed 14-10.

“They punched us in the mouth in the first quarter,” Hendersonville coach James Beasley told Andy Tell of “We had to play better … We didn’t like the way we started the game, and we didn’t like the way we started the third quarter.

“But our kids fought all the way to the end of the game.”

South Warren’s Christian Conyer, a verbal commit to the University of Tennessee, had two impressive kickoff returns, one right before halftime and the other as they opened the third quarter.

The Spartans couldn’t cash in one Conyer’s first return, but they did make it happen the second time, as junior running back Jimmy Sales scored on a 6-yard run to put South in front 16-14 with 10:09 left in the third quarter.

South’s Jace Cutrona couldn’t handle a low snap on the extra-point attempt, however, and the two-point pass fell incomplete, giving Hendersonville a little momentum going into its next offensive series.

That’s when the Commandos’ running game started to click.

Stevin Mack broke a couple tackles near the line of scrimmage and hit the left sideline for his second touchdown of the night, a dazzling 26-yard run. Mack briefly broke into a couple dance steps as he crossed the goal line, but no penalty was called and the Spartans trailed 21-16.

South Warren put together its final scoring drive in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. Button converted a fourth-and-5 situation into a first down with a well executed pass to Christian Conyer, and Jimmy Sales did most of the work from there, scoring on a 2-yard run to trim the Spartans’ deficit to 28-22 with 7:40 left in the game.

South’s two-point conversion attempt, however, went nowhere and the Commandos’ defense was equal to the task down the stretch.

Hendersonville’s offense had gone three-and-out on its first three possessions in the first half, and Bryce Button found South teammate Keegan Milby on a quick slant for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 9:42 left in the half. That score pushed the Spartans’ lead to 10-0.

“(South Warren) is a quality team,” Hendersonville coach James Beasley said. “That’s a really, really good team.”

Hendersonville is 2-0 heading into its rivalry game with Beech High School in Tennessee Region 5-6A play. The Spartans, meanwhile, are 1-1 heading into their open date and September 9 matchup with Gibson Southern in Indiana.

“We’ve got a lot to work on,” Brandon Smith said. “That’s what this game told us.”