The Wayne County Cardinals, coming off a 10-2 season that included a district championship over favored Corbin 63-49, enter 2020 with high hopes and expectations, after a 36-7 loss at Johnson Central in the regional championship game, ended their 2019 campaign. Eight players with starting experience return on offense and six return on defense, as expectations are high led by returning All State performer and Mr. Football candidate Braedon Sloan.
Leadership will come from 14 seniors that know the success of winning championships, despite competing in what is considered one of Class 4A’s toughest district that includes: Knox Central, Corbin and Lincoln County.
“Great group of young men who has done the right thing on and off the field to be successful and make all of us proud here in Wayne County. They are winners and great young men to be around on a daily basis. I’m very impressed how they have handled themselves during these uncertain times. These young men have had to do a lot on their own and have done just that. The strength will be that I think they will never take another day for granted and will be ready to go and very excited they get the chance to play,” said Cards 17th year head coach Shawn Thompson.
Thompson, a 1991 Wayne County graduate and 4-year varsity letter-winner, is the school’s all-time wins leader with a career record of 133-63. The squad has an 90-27 mark the past nine years and enters this season as one of the favorites in the district and region after regional championships in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“Our off season got cut short and really haven't had no normalcy until the last couple of weeks. These guys have stayed positive and put the time in, so I’m proud of their hard work when they really didn’t have to put it in,” said Thompson.
The heartbeat of the 2020 Cardinal offense starts in the backfield with 6-0 190 lbs. running back Braedon Sloan. Sloan led the team with 277 attempts for 2804 rushing yards with 48 TDs and added 20 catches for 461 yards, with six scores, plus returned an interception and kickoff for touchdowns, which eclipsed former Boone County standout and Alabama legend Sean Alexander’s single season KHSAA record of 54 in 2004. Sloan committed to Eastern Kentucky University in December and was one of new head coach Walt Wells early recruiting priorities.
“Like a storybook season for Braedon last year, it’s still amazing the numbers he put up and to do it playing great teams each Friday night. If he’s not in the mix for Mr. Football then the year 2020 has really be a bad one. It’s great for our program and community to have a young man and a team in the spotlight each week. EKU is getting a great student athlete that’s going to big things on and off the field,” said Thompson.
Senior Brody Weaver is back to man the quarterback position, after 12-starts produced some outstanding numbers for a second-year starter. Weaver at 6-1 200 lbs. completed 102 of 177 passes for 1822 yards with 20 TDs against just 3 interceptions, plus added 235 rushing yards with 2 scores. Weaver has totaled 3892 passing yards and 49 TDS the past two seasons and those numbers put him in excellent company.
“Brody is a Warrior and a fierce competitor that has run the show for three years now and will go down as one of the best to play at Wayne County. He’s a very smart young man that is easy to coach and the stats he has put up will certainly back that up. He is a dual threat throwing as well as running the ball when you have that in a quarterback it makes your offense hard to prepare for,” said Thompson.
Senior Carson Simpson, at 6-0 and 195 lbs., is back after posting 181 rushing yards with 2 scores and 8 catches for 168 yards and another three scores as a part-time starter in 2019. Simpson is capable of spelling Sloan when needed and totaled 487 rushing yards as a sophomore starter when Sloan was injured.
“Carson Simpson can be a difference maker on offense will play a hybrid spot where he will be in the backfield and split him out as receiver, depending on the formation,” said Thompson.
The receiving corps will certainly have a different look after Simpson, as Thomas Spencer led the team in catches and yards with 29 receptions for 561 yards but has graduated. Lee Shelton a starter since his freshman season on defense will be counted on to go both ways this season and provides the offense with some versatility. Shelton a natural tight end at 6-4 and 220 lbs. had a rushing TD and 5 catches for 109 yards as a sophomore and those numbers must increase for the offense to flow in 2020. Sophomores Wesley Cares, a 6-3 175 lbs. and Mason Burchett a 5-11 180 lbs. varsity newcomer along with 5-11 senior Grant Rice all figure into the wide receiver rotation at press time.
“We have some young guys that will be forced to step up and make plays, as we have to relieve some of the pressure on the running game. Those guys will only get better with each of rep in practice and games,” said Thompson.
A big key for the offensive unit that averaged an eye-popping 45 points per game will be the offensive line, which returns four starters. Cameron York, a 6-0 235 lbs. senior tackle teams with 5-11 285 lbs. senior center William King to anchor the line, as both will be year three-year starters. Seniors Andrew Sargent, at 5-8 190 lbs. and Dylan Jones 5-11 240 lbs. are both back to fill the guard positions, while 6-1 315 lbs. sophomore Nathan Stokes will get the nod at the left tackle spot.
“The offensive line should be the bright spot of our team. The guys are battled tested in the trenches and know what it takes each time out to move the football down the field and light up the scoreboard. Those guys don’t get the glory or any publicity, but we know they have to be aggressive and set the tone. The guys in the trenches are the most important part to any football team,” said Thompson.
The junior trio of Curtis Dobbs, Trevor Hammond and Cameron Hughes all will be counted on to provide depth on a very experienced offensive line.
Wayne County averaged 45 points per game in 2019, so how much will the philosophy change in 2020?
“Pretty simple with what we got coming back I feel no need to change anything. We will run whatever it takes to be competitive each and every Friday night. We aren’t interested in being flashy or fancy. We just want to play hard-nosed football that gets after it until the whistle, which if we do that, good things will happen,” said Thompson.
The defense will use multiple fronts and schemes but for the purpose of this preview the position breakdown will be from a 5-2 look, anchored by junior linebacker Lee Shelton. Shelton, with 24 starts in his career, totaled 90 tackles with 7 tackles for loss and a team best 3 interceptions last season and now has 7 for his career.
“Lee has moved to middle linebacker this year, which will turn him loose more to make the big plays. He has to be the leader out on the field from getting everyone lined up to making the big plays. At 6’4 220 he is going to be hard to handle if he stays focused and plays the way he is capable of playing, which will only make our defense and everyone around him better,” said Thompson.
Justin Curry, a 6-0 175 lbs. junior and spot-starter last season will start at the other linebacker spot after totaling 25 tackles in 8 games last season at safety position.
Seniors Kaleb Humble and Nick Green both return to man the nose and tackle spots, on the defensive line. Humble has the size at 6-3 355 lbs. and experience with 14 stops, while Green has excellent size as well at 6-4 320 lbs. and finished the year with 23 total tackles. Carson Simpson returns to provide the line versatility at end, after registering 31 tackles, 2 sacks and a team high 3 fumble recoveries last season. Dawson Ambrosio, a 5-9 240 lbs. senior and Kurtis Carr, a 5-9 185 lbs. senior both figure to provide valuable snaps in the box, at the defensive tackle and linebacker/end spots.
“We have to get more pressure on the quarterback and that’s a must. We have to tackle better and quit giving up the big play on third down. We want to be a more physical group that swarms the football,” said Thompson.
The defensive backfield has the most question marks and holes to fill as Colton Tucker is the only returning starter with 16 total tackles last season. Tucker, a 5-8 145 lbs. junior should get the nod at one corner spot, while 5-6 130 lbs. junior Fernando Tello could start at the other corner spot. Xavier Tello, a 5-6 135 lbs. sophomore could get the start at one safety position, while sophomore Wesley Cares could see time at the corner or other safety spot.
“Those young men are really going to have to step up quickly as we don’t have a lot of experience in the defensive backfield. They have been easy to coach and must play physical for us to be successful on defense,” said Thompson.
Braedon Sloan figures into the rotation as well with 29 tackles and an interception as a reserve last season, while Brody Weaver also was in the mix as a dime back. The combinations in the defensive backfield may change throughout the season for a unit that allowed 28.4 points per outing in 2019.
Special teams return an All-District performer in junior Patrick Radilla at kicker, as Radilla connected on 62 of 65 extra points and 3 of 6 field goal attempts, including the game-winner at Corbin, in the regular season. Sophomore Jack Kelsay has used a big off-season to compete for both the kicking and punting jobs. Several starters in the offensive backfield and skill positions will be counted on in the return game, which produced one touchdown last season.
“We want to be solid in all phases of the game and special teams play is a big part of that, so we expect those guys to protect the football, reverse the field and make some big plays throughout the season,” said Thompson.
Southwestern, Danville, Harlan County, North Laurel and Pulaski County round-out the out of league games.
“Another tough road for us, but just like years past, I really believe its helps come playoff time. With some luck and no serious injuries, we will be battled tested come November playing all these quality teams,” said Thompson.
How does the Class 4A District 7 shape up?
“Like always its who has some good luck and plays well in all aspects of the game each Friday night. Anyone can win the district, so we better buckle up and bring our A game, as we certainly can’t have any off-nights,” said Thompson.
What must the Cards do to be successful and reach their goals in 2020?
“Missing our off-season workouts has been difficult, so getting these young men ready physically, mentally, and emotionally is a big concern but I'm sure that’s the case for every coach in the state. We just have to adapt from day to day of all the guidelines and uncertainty that we will face. After that stay focused on what we can control and get over what we can’t,” said Thompson.
Wayne County is certainly enjoying the “Golden Era” of Cardinal Football and this team has the opportunity to compete for a district and regional championship, but the road won’t be easy. The squad is a preseason top 10 in most Class 4A polls for good reason and if healthy don’t bet against the squad once again being a force when the calendar turns to November.