Last year, McCracken County took another step forward in Class 6A.
After a sluggish start to the season, where the Mustangs won one of their first six games -- it would later be improved to two wins in six games, following a forfeit from Clarksville (Tennessee) Northeast for using an ineligible player -- McCracken would turn things around.
It rattled off six straight wins, including the school's first win over a team from the Louisville Metro area -- a 50-12 shellacking of Jeffersontown in a playoff opener on Nov. 2. The Mustangs' season ended with a 34-18 loss to Louisville Ballard in the second round of the postseason.
This season, many of the pieces are back. Elijah Wheat will return as McCracken's quarterback. Franklin Hayes and last year's biggest surprise, Hunter Bradley, will split time in the backfield.
Hayes is eager, he said, at the prospect of taking a bigger step toward Kroger Field in Lexington and an opportunity at playing in December.
"I'm super excited," Hayes said. "We're super dynamic. We've got Jeremiah Hughes, my little cousin, at slot receiver. He's a smart player. We've got receivers who can go up and get the ball, and we've got a lot of experience in the backfield."
The 1-2 punch of Hayes and Bradley was formidable last season.
The pair combined for 872 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns -- with 744 yards and 10 scores coming from Bradley, who came on to the scene late in the year -- and was complimented with Hayes' versatility in the pass game, accounting for 623 yards and six touchdowns.
This year, that may well improve.
"He's got sneaky talent," Hayes said of Bradley. "Things that you think he can't do, he does. He'll just run you over, he'll run through you and past you. He's reading the field like a book. It's special. He and Wheat back there, it's special. It's something to watch."
On defense, McCracken will be without ball-hawking defensive back Kiael Waldon, who graduated last spring. Defensive lineman Darius Cain is off to college, too, at Eastern Kentucky. Kolton Reeves and Ethan McKendree have a shot at continuing the success that Waldon, Cain, Skyler Mayes (Eastern Illinois) and Tyce Daniel (Memphis), their predecessors, turned into an expectation.
"They're starting to take more of a stronghold of the scheme," McCracken coach Marc Clark said of his upperclassmen on defense. "At every level, you've got someone who's been there, done that and played some snaps. They're able to guide some of the younger guys we've got in our lineup along and get them prepped for the season."
Marshals ready for challenge in 6A
Marshall County is moving back up to Class 6A this year, after spending the last four years in Class 5A.
Still, the Marshals, who haven't finished a season above .500 since going 6-5 in 2011, are excited for the challenge.
The first step, improving team chemistry, seems to be well on its way.
"I feel like we want each other to succeed way more than we did last year," said senior Ty Buchmeier, who will be splitting time this season at wide receiver, running back, safety, outside linebacker and emergency backup quarterback. "We're all working way better as a team. We've been doing well as seniors trying to lead and get to the younger guys. I think we've been working well.
"We're looking forward to (playing in 6A). We're looking forward to playing a few new teams (McCracken, Daviess County and Henderson County in consecutive weeks starting Sept. 20) instead of the same people every year."
Offensively, Marshall will be playing its third quarterback in as many seasons.
Last year's signal-caller, Tyler Stokes, left football to focus on basketball.
Enter sophomore Quinn Smith.
When the season begins for the Marshals on Aug. 23, at home against Ballard Memorial, he'll be taking his first varsity snap leading an offense that passed for 447 yards (49.7 yards a game) and ran for 1,918 (213.1 a game) last season.
"Quinn's had a good summer so far," Marshall County coach Evan Merrick said. "When you've got a sophomore there, you want to try and build around him and not be in a situation where he's overworked. The guys around him, they work really well around him. He's earned the respect of the upperclassmen. Keeping him healthy is the big thing, but I think he's fully capable of running the offense."
Defensively, there's room to improve for the team that allowed 3,956 yards last season -- nearly 440 a game.
"We've changed the defense completely," Buchmeier said. "We went back to doing what we were doing a few years ago, which is much simpler. We'll have a whole new defensive line. I think they'll all do really well."
"We're hoping to expand our playbook in the second season in this system to provide outlets to an offense that averaged more than five yards per play last season. Dalton Keeling will be the lone returner on the offensive line but will be reinforced by fellow seniors Dawson Smothers and Devon Evans, who will be converting to the position to provide size and stability. Top playmaker and three-year starter Ty Buchmeier will be returning and playing a key role in both the ground game and as a receiver for us. The backfield will feature a one/two punch of Cody Sorrells and Luke Wyatt. Newcomers Riley Smith, Garrett Parker, and Talon Smothers along with Bryce Flatt, who'll transition from basketball this fall, will also play a role in the offense this season.
"Defensively we expect to improve from last year and force more turnovers in 2019, something that plagued us at times. We will base out of a 4-2-5 scheme that will give us different coverage options in the secondary as well as provide stability in the box. Three-year starter Dawson Smothers will anchor our defense at linebacker along with other veterans Buchmeier, Dylan Rayburn and Matthew Wooten. Talon Smothers, Riley Smith and Parker will also vie for spots on the defensive side. On special teams we hope to be able to use the kicking game to control field position and be able to put points on the board kicking the football. This preseason we'll have an open competition for both kicker and punter, roles we lost to graduation last year but expect to have several viable options to choose from.
"The 2019 season looks to be exciting as we have several big matchups to look forward to. ... Our goal is to be in the middle of the district race at season's end and put ourselves in position for a favorable postseason run. We'll also continue games with our traditional rivals Murray High, Calloway County and Graves County. Our guys have been working hard and we look forward to seeing where we size up in the weeks ahead," said Merrick