BOWLING GREEN, SOUTH WARREN PUT IT ALL ON THE LINE
It was the first night of October, at South Warren High School’s football stadium.
The Spartans, the heavy favorite in the KHSAA’s Class 5A, 2nd District, walked toward their locker room a 36-7 winner over crosstown rival Bowling Green High School. The Purples had knocked South Warren out of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, however, and both teams knew there’d likely be a rematch in the second week of November.
With a lot more at stake.
That moment has arrived, of course, just as both teams expected. No. 1-ranked South Warren (10-1) plays host to the underdog Purples (6-5) at 7 p.m. on Friday, with the winner to emerge halfway to the finish line, the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field, the site of the KHSAA championship weekend.
Bowling Green made it to Lexington last year, after knocking off the Spartans 41-24 in the second round of the playoffs. It’s a game that has gnawed at South Warren’s players for months. Veteran Spartans coach Brandon Smith has an experienced squad, with three-year starters on both sides of the ball, while the Purples’ Mark Spader has had to tinker with his team’s chemistry, all with an eye toward the postseason, which begins in earnest tonight.
It promises to be another memorable chapter in the BGHS-South rivalry, one of the fiercest in the Commonwealth.
“We know we’re going to see them again,” Purples defensive tackle Jeremiah Lightfoot said in early October.
Jake Jackson, the Spartans’ senior defensive tackle and emotional leader, has been open on the same topic for months. On Tuesday, he was quick to spell it all out. South Warren won last year’s regular-season game, 10-7, at Bowling Green, before the BGHS defense forced seven turnovers as the Purples bounced the Spartans from the Class 5A playoffs for the second consecutive season.
South Warren is looking for the third state championship in school history, and its first since 2018, Jackson’s freshman year with the Spartans. South Warren went 15-0 that year, edging Covington Catholic 20-16 in the KHSAA Class 5A championship game in Lexington.
“This is all I’ve been waiting for, really,” Jackson said. “We want more. The last time, we won in the regular season. They won in the playoffs. We’re always a confident team, but we know (Bowling Green) will change some things up. It’s always going to be a battle.”
Four games into the season, Spader moved senior quarterback Spencer Newman to the secondary, installing freshman Deuce Bailey as his starting quarterback. Bailey has been a work in progress, and he may have had his best game in last week’s 24-10 victory over Greenwood. Bailey completed 13 of 23 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception, as the Purples improved to 34-0 lifetime against Greenwood.
“It was kind of a surprise, when the coaches wanted me to go on defense,” Newman said. “At the time, I just wanted to get on the field. Deuce has always been a quarterback, too. He’s really smart, and I always do what I can to help him. In a game like this, there will be more communication between us.
“They’re the No. 1-ranked (5A) team in the state. There is a lot of pressure on them. I think we have the talent to find a way to win.”
Brandon Smith, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Boyle County coach Chuck Smith, acknowledges that preparation plays a bigger role in a rivarly game like this one.
“Bowling Green has had the same kind of expectations as us,” Smith said. “That’s why I think it’s the best rivalry in the state. I think we’re at the point, with the program, that there’s an expectation level kind of built in. This group of (South Warren) seniors, they’ve been a big part of that expectation level.”
South Warren quarterback Caden Veltkamp has been a picture of consistency for the Spartans this season. He’s completed 121 of 175 passes for 1,886 yards and 26 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted only five times, while adding seven rushing TDs. He operates behind a seasoned offensive line, led by tackle Preston Parks and center Zack Goodwin, with a solid running game featuring senior tailback Kobe Martin (772 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns).
“We’re in good shape. We were a little too loose in practice Monday, but we were really sharp after that,” Veltkamp said. “We’ve just got to put some drives together. Don’t get behind on the sticks. And we’ll be all right.
“It seems a little like nobody cares about the regular season much anymore. This is the game we’ve been focused on.”
BGHS linebacker Tyler Moore, the MVP in the Purples’ 17-7 victory over Owensboro High School in last year’s Class 5A state championship game, understands. Spader moved him to offense, early in the season, but Moore stepped aside for senior running back Matrix Halcomb a few weeks back, and Halcomb now leads the Purples with 504 yards rushing.
“Both teams have been in these kinds of situations the last couple years,” Moore said. “We know what it takes to get it done … We are really looking forward to the game.”
Spader has been able to count on his defense to set the tone for his team, while the offense has largely been a work in progress. Spader believes the Purples can close ranks and strike for the upset, while acknowledging the Spartans are pretty much loaded for bear. After a 27-20 loss to Hendersonville (Tennessee), South Warren has won nine straight games, all by comfortable margins.
“I really appreciate how our seniors have created a good tempo and enthusiasm in practice,” Spader said. “South Warren is ranked No. 1 and will not go down easy. The next round of the playoffs will be determined by RPI, so there’s a little uncertainty there.
“We’ve got to (win), or we’ll be done.”
South Warren outside linebacker Evan Lee believes the Spartans’ defense will answer the bell against the Purples.
“This is the game we’ll always remember, as seniors,” Lee said. “We’re just locked in, right now.”
Kobe Martin said Bowling Green was able to remove the “emotional side” out of the equation in last year’s 41-24 knockout of the Spartans last year, and he’s convinced the roles have changed this time around.
“We can’t make it an emotional game, for ourselves,” Martin said. “I feel like we’ve come a long way from last year. We’re focused on the bigger picture, and the bigger picture, right now, is this game.”
Kickoff for tonight’s game is at 7 p.m.