The first season under Jason Foley featured a lot of ups and downs.
Sitting at 2-5 overall and 0-2 in district play, Southwestern’s chances of making the playoffs were looking slim. The Warriors turned into a different team after a loss to Whitley County, going on a five-game winning streak before falling to Frederick Douglass, the eventual state runner-up, in the regional finals.
Southwestern, the No. 4 seed in Class 5A District 8, started the postseason with an upset win over No. 1 Pulaski County prior to defeating Whitley County in the district finals to claim the program’s ninth district championship. The Warriors finished the season with a 7-6 record in Foley’s first year at the helm of the program.
Injuries plagued the early portion of the 2019 campaign for the Warriors, but they got the ship headed in the right direction when they needed to. The learning curve of a new offense and defense also contributed to a slow start.
“It was a challenge because it was a new offense and defense,” began Foley. “There was also a new staff, and it takes kids a while to get adjusted. On top of that, we were pummeled with injuries - it was abnormal the amount of injuries that we had. At one point, we had eight starters on defense out a few games. It was a crazy time.”
“As we got healthy and the kids got more adjusted to our system, we got hot at the right time,” continued the second-year Warrior football coach. “We finished strong, but just ran into a great football team in Frederick Douglass. The road stopped there, but it was a good finish for us.”
After a strong run to finish the 2019 season, Foley and the Warriors went to work in the weight room to prepare for the 2020 campaign. Things were going great until COVID-19 brought high school sports to a screeching halt in mid-March. Since that time, football teams all across the Bluegrass State have been preparing for the upcoming season with guidelines to keep the players and coaches safe.
“We had made such big gains in the weight room from December to March, and we were very happy about that,” Foley stated. “Then COVID hit, and that stalled us. We have been able to get some of that back over the last couple of months with our workouts. As coaches and players, we have had to deal with adversity during this time. The only thing we can do is prepare like we are going to play on September 11th.”
After the KHSAA met in late August, the Board of Control approved an option that would allow the first official game to be played on September 11th. Southwestern will now play nine regular-season games prior to the playoffs beginning on November 13th.
Despite the delay in the season getting underway, the Warriors are poised to make another deep postseason run in Foley’s second season at the Reservation. While Southwestern will be missing some key pieces from last year’s district championship squad, they should be in the hunt for a regional championship once again.
Southwestern, who averaged 17.9 points per game a year ago, is hoping to use the pass more than they did last season. The Warriors ran for 180.3 yards per game last year, compared to only 73.5 passing yards per contest.
Senior Chandler Crabtree, who missed most of last season with an injury, is expected to be QB1 this season. Crabtree, as a sophomore, was 3-of-4 for 91 yards and one score in his only start at the quarterback position.
“Chandler Crabtree was our starter going into the preseason last year, but he would miss the season due to a torn UCL ligament,” Foley explained. “We had to try some different things, but Blake Burton stepped in and got the job for us last year. Chandler is our guy going into the year right now, and we’ve seen some good things from him this summer. Maison Hibbard is a solid back-up if we need him.”
The Warriors, as they have been notorious for over the years, are loaded once again at the running back position. Southwestern will utilize three different running backs in a rotation, and each of them provides a different wrinkle to the offense.
Tanner Wright, who only played in eight games for the Warriors last year, accumulated 679 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 90 attempts. Giddeon Brainard (37 attempts for 204 yards and one score) and Connor Crisp (20 carries for 111 yards and three touchdowns) will join Wright in the Southwestern backfield in 2020.
“Those three kids are very capable kids, and they all bring something a little different to the table,” Foley praised. “Those three are going to be key for us. Giddeon is just a powerhouse, he’s 220 pounds and a 500-pound squatter. He’s a good change of pace for us. Connor Crisp is that quick scatback for us. Tanner Wright has strength and speed, and he sees the field exceptionally well. We’ve also got some good running backs in J.J. Hutchinson, Korbyn Goff, Lucas McKee, and Christian Walden.”
Foley believes Southwestern’s receiving corps will be a group to watch in 2020. After losing Xavier Streeter (15 catches for 238 yards and two scores) to graduation, the Warriors will lean on Maison Hibbard, who hauled in 12 receptions for 222 yards and a lone touchdown in 2019.
Joining Hibbard at the wideout position will be Justin Vaught (seven catches for 80 yards last season), Ian Ware, Alex Farler (23 catches for 274 yards and three scores in 2019), Kaden Hewitt, and Riley McBryde.
At the tight end spot, Southwestern will turn to Brody Perkins and Cody Harmon. The Warriors did not utilize the tight end position a lot last season, but they plan to in 2020.
A slew of guys make up the Warriors’ young offensive line, which will be led by John Poe. Maddox Mink, Braiden Myers, Tyler Russell, Jason Adams, Nico Pascarella, Matthew Loy, Cayden Petrarca, and Blake Drew finish out the offensive line for Southwestern.
Defensively, the Warriors lose two of their top four tacklers from a season ago in Austin Barnes (143 tackles) and Kenny Robinson (98 stops). With that being said, Southwestern does return a lot of key pieces from last season’s defensive unit, including Rowan Pennington, who was second on the team in tackles last year with 128.
Dylan Asher, who led the team in fumble recoveries last season with four, will anchor the defensive line for the Warriors. Harmon, Jaydon Washington, Micah Mullins, Darrian Guest, and Nikolas Tucker will join Asher on the defensive front.
The Warriors’ linebacker corps for 2020 is led by Pennington, but he will have assistance from Christian Kelly, Heagan Galloway, Nathan Vanover, Azure Nelson, Ben Coomer, and Wyatt Morgan.
Southwestern’s strength on the defensive side of the football is their defensive back unit. Hibbard, Farler, Crabtree, Ethan Ware, Josh Walden, and Ian Ware have a lot of experience in those positions, but the Warriors will also have Hutchinson, Aiden Childers, Ezra Major, and Christian Walden in the mix for some playing time.
With Max Brainard gone due to graduation, the Warriors will have to fill a hole in the kicking game. Brainard, who went 17-of-21 on extra points and 2-for-3 in field goal attempts, will be replaced by Crisp at the punter position and younger brother Giddeon Brainard at the kicker spot.
Although it will be condensed, the season will begin on September 11th with a road trip to Wayne County before back-to-back home games versus George Rogers Clark and Knox Central. Southwestern’s district slate begins with consecutive away games at North Laurel and Whitley County on October 2nd and 9th, respectively.
To wrap up district action, the Warriors will host South Laurel (October 16th) and Pulaski County (October 23rd) at the Reservation. The Warriors will conclude regular-season action on the road, traveling to Madison Central and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Foley believes that every game on his schedule will be tough, and his team will have to come out ready to play each Friday night. The non-district slate features three matchups against Class 6A clubs and a pair of Class 4A meetings, highlighted by the season-opener at Wayne County.
“I don’t see any game that is a given - they’re all going to be a challenge,” Foley stated. “We’ve got to be ready to play week-to-week. We start off with Wayne County, who has one of the best running backs in the state with Braedon Sloan - he’s going to give any defense a big-time challenge. We play George Rogers Clark, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Madison Central - all 6A schools. I expect those three teams to be good in 6A this year. We added Knox Central again this year.”
As far as district play goes, defending champion Southwestern should be in the mix for a district championship once again, but it won’t be easy. Pulaski County has been consistently great over the last decade, Whitley County was last year’s district runner-up, North Laurel has the ability to surprise some folks, and South Laurel is making gains each season under Donnie Burdine.
“Our district schedule is always competitive with Pulaski, Whitley County, North Laurel, and South Laurel,” said the second-year Warrior coach. “Over the last few years, Pulaski has been very strong. Pulaski is going to be Pulaski, and they’re always good. I feel like North Laurel is going to surprise a lot of people this year. Whitley County, we played them last year for a district title. Every game is going to be a challenge.”