If the rest of the state is waiting to see cracks in the Scott County High School football foundation after the opening of a new school in the neighborhood, it’s about to have a bad time for the foreseeable future.
Nothing about the Cardinal numbers — SC’s senior, sophomore and freshman classes each total 30 or more — suggests the sunset of a dynasty.
Nothing about the team’s attention to detail during the twilit chapter of a Tuesday two-a-day remotely hinted at scaled-back schemes or fresh philosophy.
As for the confidence level and expectations, they don’t ring with despair or nostalgia, either. The “drop” to Class 5A is sheer symbolism and mere mathematics.
Scott County expects to mark the occasion by hoisting district and state hardware, as usual, after the frost gathers on the pumpkin.
“I want to go 15-0. We expect to go 15-0,” SC coach Jim McKee said, noting that he put the Cards on the first line in a pair of coaches’ polls. “We expect to be No. 1 in the opening poll. We expect to be No. 1 at the season’s end. That’s what the expectation is.”
His players, most of whom have known McKee since grade school thanks to their friendship with his son and quarterback, Cade, didn’t back away from their mentor’s comments.
“That’s all we’re thinking about, especially from last year, coming off a loss in the [Class 6A] championship game,” senior fullback Philip Garner said. “We feel like we didn’t play our best game. I feel like this is the year we can go 15-0 and win the championship.”
Scott County rallied from a rough patch in midseason and made its fourth title-game appearance in the McKee era, a 37-20 loss to Louisville Male at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field.
Even with the loss of four-year, two-way starters Bryan Hudson and Glenn Covington, and even after the defection of a few under-the-radar seniors to the Great Crossing High School start-up, the business as usual theme is pervasive.
“Nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing has changed except our class. That’s it,” senior defensive back Sam Daniel said. “Different teams in our district, but we’re still the same us.”
Thirty seniors are an extraordinary number for any 5A or 6A team, given the slight, statewide drop in football participation and the attrition that comes naturally when younger players don’t receive the instant gratification of immediate playing time.
Factor in the changes afoot throughout the community in the offseason, and SC’s ability to keep its nucleus together is truly remarkable. The attraction of new facilities and a ballyhooed, pass-happy approach next door weren’t enough to break up the band.
“We only lost one kid in our senior class that we really wanted to stay,” Garner said. “Our entire senior class is here and motivated as ever. We’ve got one goal in mind, and that’s a state championship.”
Scott County welcomes back the younger McKee for his second season as starting quarterback. The building blocks around him include halfback Bronson Brown, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a junior, and Austin Taylor, who is likely to join Hudson as a Division I lineman next fall.
“I remember our first practice as sophomores,” Cade McKee said. “We were all just as excited as could be knowing that two years from now it’s going to be our time and we’re going to be the seniors. It’s here, and I think everyone is embracing it and working hard all the time. No one complains. It’s just a really good group.”
The last in a line of prominent brothers to wear the Cardinal red, Daniel also saw that potential from the moment this group merged from the county’s three middle schools.
“We went 10-0 freshman year and knew we were going to be something special after that,” he recalled. “We lost some guys here and there, but for the most part we’re all together. I love every one of them.”
Fate prevented two members of the tight-knit class from enjoying the full fruit of last year’s late-season surge.
Garner, slated to take over the all-important fullback slot in Scott County’s Wing-T this year, was lost to a lower leg injury in week two against Lafayette. Daniel, a linchpin of the Cards’ pass defense, tore the ACL in his right knee while covering a kickoff against Henry Clay.
Friends and teammates are highly motivated to give the pair — both of whom tuned up with a successful, healthy baseball season — a Hollywood ending.
“I was surprised when they let me play baseball. My only motivation obviously was to get back for this,” Daniel said. “From the second I got hurt it was, ‘I’ve got to get back.’ That’s all I’ve known. That’s a blessing it happened last year for sure.”
“Knowing they made that run to the state championship [game] and I had nothing to do with it, that was tough,” Garner added. “It really created a whole another passion for the game, because I missed it so much. I couldn’t walk for three-and-a-half months, so it was rough. I think last year was good for motivating me to get back and have a special senior season.”
The head coach isn’t surprised by the dedication to everything for which the Scott County program stands.
McKee also served up a positive spin when asked to evaluate how the new educational and gridiron landscapes in the community have affected the Cardinals’ brand.
“If anything I think the school split has helped us. We topped out last year at 142 [players, seniors to freshmen], and it looks like about 105 to 110 this year,” he said. “I think our guys can get more attention. In the past this has been the only option. Now kids have an option, and the kids that are here are the ones that really want to be here, so we’re really excited about that.”
Ardent fans of the program will notice a new look to Scott County’s schedule.
Lafayette and Bryan Station are the only long-standing Lexington 6A teams that remain on the 10-game docket.
Frederick Douglass, which SC has beaten twice in both years of their budding rivalry, also drops into 5A. Those two will share a district with Great Crossing, Montgomery County and Grant County.
Covington Catholic and Bowling Green are 5A’s traditional powers.
“There are a lot of good teams in 5A, but there were even more good teams in 6A, and we still [were a powerhouse in] 6A,” Garner said. “So we’re ready for the challenge and ready to have a great season.”
As either an engaged bystander or a participant for his entire life, Cade McKee has seen the highs and lows of SC having to compete against Louisville teams in the largest classification.
“I’m really excited for it, because to be honest, nobody likes dealing with Trinity and St. (Xavier),” the QB admitted. “Not having to deal with them is awesome, but we know we could be playing anywhere and we’re going have to a bull’s eye on our chest. But we embrace that. We love that.”
In part because it customarily plays deep into November, and McKee is wary of that grind, Scott County waits longer to hit the field than most teams in the state.
The KHSAA approved helmets-only activity the moment its summer “dead period” ended July 10. SC didn’t convene until five days later, and even then, it ramped up slowly for a week with its traditional Tennessee Tracks conditioning program.
Typically careful to balance his appreciation for the past with his performance-based emphasis on the present and future, Jim McKee acknowledges a special bond with this senior class.
The loyalty flows in both directions. After Tuesday morning’s first official practice of the season, several players joined the coach and his son for a sun-drenched session on the McKee family farm in Cynthiana. Then it was back to the field by 8 p.m. for another workout.
“Six of them, they all went and topped tobacco, because they’re friends with Cade,” McKee said. “I’ve known their dads and moms since the kids were this big, and so not only for the kids but for their families, nothing would make me happier than to make sure they have a great year.
“A ton of the kids that are seniors have grown up with Cade. Some coaches are funny, and I think they’re bold-faced liars. Coaching your son is completely different than anybody else.”
And yes, Scott County football is simply different than most of the other 200-or-so programs in the state.
Then and now.
“All the talk that’s going on, social media, it don’t mean anything to us,” Cade McKee said. “We just come out here and practice like we usually do. We know everything is going to be decided on the field.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.