We started exchanging text messages, played a little phone tag on Saturday.
On Sunday, I hopped in the Gray Ghost and took the short drive to Warren Central High School.
The kids in my neighborhood are in a Warren Central district.
I got to the Warren Central field house a few minutes before Mark Nelson, the Dragons’ personable first-year coach, pulled his car in, behind the fence above Joe Hood Field. One of Warren East’s middle school teams, the seventh-grade squad, was scrapping with Paducah Tighlman. Nelson motioned me inside the field house and we talked about yet another tight game that gave the Dragons plenty of hope, only to see themselves fall a little short on the scoreboard.
THIS WAS ONE LOSS THAT HURT
As close as you’re ever going to come.
The Dragons played host to Marshall County on Friday night, and in an unusual game, the Marshals pulled out a 27-26 victory.
All the scoring took place in the first half.
Warren Central had two or three legitimate scoring opportunities in the second half.
And in the end, it was Marshall County that emerged with the hard-fought victory, and the Dragons were left to ponder the school’s 60-game losing streak.
A streak that goes back to October 16, 2015.
Most of the Warren Central players were in grade school then. Some of them probably lived elsewhere. With the school’s large number of international students, there’s no telling where some of them came from. And they came … so … close …
“We didn’t get it done,” Nelson said via text.
Given some time to think about it, however, Nelson saw so many encouraging signs, so many potential breakthroughs, so many possibilities for the future.
NELSON UNDERSTANDS THE LANDSCAPE
“Losing doesn’t scare me,” Nelson said. “What gets me going, every day, when you start a program, the things you have to do …
“I’d love to see these five seniors win a game.”
They are senior lineman Tevin Bigbee, senior fullback/linebacker Telan Durham-Caulfield, senior fullback/linebacker/lineman Malik Ferguson, senior wide receiver/linebacker Win Htun and senior wide receiver/defensive back/placekicker Summy Manirakiza. They’ll get one more shot, to win a game.
Mark Nelson, for one, can’t wait.
The Dragons (0-9) will close the 2021 season with a road trip to play Thomas Nelson High School, a KHSAA Class 3A squad sporting a 3-6 record, on Friday night.
Thomas Nelson is located in unincorporated Nelson County, Kentucky, near the tourist hub of Bardstown. The Generals defeated one of their big rivals, Nelson County High School, in rolling to a 35-13 victory last week.
While most KHSAA teams reach the postseason, Warren Central will be an exception because the Dragons play in the five-team Class 4A, 2nd District.
The Dragons came so close on Friday night, so excrutiatingly close, that some of them had to take refuge in the locker room. Their junior quarterback, Kayumba Jean Aime, completed 13 of 22 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once.
Jean Aime’s twin brother, junior receiver/defensive back Kangakole Jean Aime, contributed on both sides of the football. Durham-Caulfield, one of the five Warren Central seniors, had 11 tackles, including one for a loss. Sophomore linebacker Yzir Gray had three tackles for losses. Junior wide receiver/cornerback Omari Glover caught a game-high nine passes, for 139 yards and a score.
The Dragons’ Demetrius Barnett, a junior running back/safety, scored on a hook-and-lateral, late in the second quarter, finding the end zone from 64 yards out. Junior running back/cornerback Deanglo Patterson scored on a 90-yard kickoff return.
DRAGONS WERE SO CLOSE THEY COULD TASTE VICTORY
Nelson was picking out one play after another, his recollection as clear as it could be. It gave him pause. Truth be told, it gave ME pause. Warren Central boys basketball coach William Unseld has one of the true powerhouses in South Central Kentucky. They’ve won in boys and girls soccer. Football has been a different story, but the Dragons have come awfully close a few times over the years.
Perhaps none closer than Friday night’s loss to Marshall County.
“We should have won that game by two scores,” Nelson said.
Demetrius Bennett had to get by three, maybe four Marshall County defenders after taking Glover’s pitch on the hook-and-lateral that went for a second-quarter touchdown.
“They methodically drove the length of the field and scored with six seconds left in the half,” Nelson said. “A couple of the coaches convinced me to try the hook-and-lateral, and we scored, but missed the 2-point conversion. Our first drive of the second half, we got the ball down to about their 20-yard line, and turned it over on downs.
“We had a couple turnovers, too.”
Nelson isn’t one for “moral victories,” and I’m guessing the Dragons’ players are thankful for that. They’ve only been around for a dozen or two of these losses, give or take, but knowing how the competitive brain works, they really want to experience victory.
BETTER TURNOUT WOULD HAVE TO HELP
I told Mark Nelson, there’s gotta be a handful of guys — probably bigger, stronger kids, potential LINEMEN — roaming the Warren Central halls who could help this football team. Nelson reluctantly acknowledged that, because he only worries about the hand he’s dealt. He knew what he was getting into, when he took the Warren Central job. His approach is significantly different than that of his predecessor, Cary Fowler, whose background was primarily in FCS football at the collegiate level.
Nelson can’t help but think about those five Warren Central seniors, but he wants the breakthrough for his underclassmen, too.
I reminded him of a quote from a feature story I did on the Dragons in September, when it was unbearably hot outside and conditioning is critical to winning and losing.
“It would be GREAT to win a game, but there’s so many little things that go into that,” Nelson said that day. “But it would take all the pressure off these kids. We have some really talented kids, but they’re kids.”
It would take the pressure off the Warren Central kids, and it might help the turnout for the 2022 football season, too. It might help at the middle school level. It might put a lot more fannies in the seats, which would help this team turn a corner in pursuit of that elusive victory.
Nelson started talking about the Dragons’ final game, the road trip to Thomas Nelson High School, the last chance to put the losing streak in the rear-view mirror.
I’ve talked to kids from opposing teams who play the Dragons, and they admit they don’t want to be the team that is on the other end of snapping that 60-game losing streak.
It’s all human nature.
Nelson understands that. His coaching staff understands that. His players are teenagers — impressionable kids, to be sure — but they understand, too.
“I’ve watched the (Marshall County game film) nine or 10 times,” Nelson said with a sigh. “The kids took it really hard, in the locker room. That was the first time we’ve shut somebody out, for an entire half, in a long, long time.
“(Winning) just doesn’t happen.”
It’s going to happen, someday, at Warren Central High School.
And Mark Nelson plans to be front and center, with his student-athletes, when it does.