By LARRY VAUGHT
First-year Ballard head coach Adrian Morton hopes his players learned a valuable lesson last year in the Class 6-A playoffs when they lost 52-12 at Simon Kenton.
“Louisville teams did not travel outside of Louisville to play. Our kids made a big mistake last year when we went to Simon Kenton in the second round of the playoffs. They just assumed we would win and Simon Kenton embarrassed us. We need to redeem ourselves,” said Ballard coach Adrian Morton.
Getting that redemption Saturday night in the Little Caesar’s Fort Harrod Bowl, though, won’t be easy because Ballard opens the season against defending Class AAA champion Boyle County — the favorite to win the state crown again this year.
Morton, a Lexington native, was nervous at first about playing Boyle but says he feels better about his team now.
“Coach (Chuck) Smith is one of the great coaches in our state. What they do, they do very, very well,” Morton said. “For me, it’s a chance to take a team back toward home and for our kids it’s a chance to play outside of Louisville. A lot of my kids did not know who Boyle County was. All they think about is Trinity, Male, St. X. But they know now Boyle has a great receiver, great running backs, really good quarterback.
“Last season we underperformed and we aim to be better this year. We have got a very talented team and have a lot of guys that are earning attention at the next level. I want to send guys to the next level but their job is to play well this year and help us have a great season. I don’t like to focus on the talent. I want the team to be selfless, like what Chuck gets those players at Boyle to do. Boyle has great talent, but they are disciplined and play for the team.
Boyle County has Division I talent, too. Junior receiver Reese Smith has offers from Troy, Cincinnati, Austin Peay and Cincinnati. He had 50 catches for 1,037 yards and 14 scores and on defense had nine interceptions and 40 tackles.
Junior running back Landen Bartleson has offers from Colorado, Louisville and Purdue after running for 1,137 yards and 20 scores last year and also making 43 tackles at cornerback. Both players have had interest from Kentucky.
Junior quarterback Reed Lanter was MVP on the 2017 state title game and won the Bluegrass Quarterback Challenge at Louisville Christian Academy this summer. He threw for 2,597 yards and 28 scores last season and was 181 of 263 with just four interception. Senior running back Tanner Crawford ran for a team-high 1,927 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
The top-rated player in the game will be Ballard senior linebacker Jared Casey. The 6-3, 220-pound Casey has scholarship offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Purdue, Syracuse, Temple, Oregon, Eastern Michigan, Cincinnati, Eastern Kentucky, Marshall, Western Kentucky and Toledo. Other schools such as Notre Dame, Ohio State and Mississippi State are among those interested.
Saturday will be his high school debut. He did not get in a game at Trinity as a sophomore and then missed last season after transferring to Ballard due to a torn labrum.
Morton says Casey’s recruitment taking off like it did in the spring based on his performance at various camps caught them off guard.
“I thought maybe he would have four or five offers and then the offers started rolling in after what he did in camp,” Morton said. “We also have elite universities that have called and said they are waiting to see him play. We play Boyle County and then Male. That will give schools a lot to see.
“He flies to the football. I have coached some great kids and been around some really talented players, but he’s one of the best I have seen. If he would play in a college game tomorrow, he would look like a sophomore. That’s who physically sound he is.”
Two other Ballard juniors — defensive back Josh Minkins and running back Markeice Warner — have scholarship offers from Kentucky. Minkins father played at Louisville. Warner also has offers from Kent State and Howard and he ran the 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds twice at a UK summer camp.
Ballard also has a new quarterback — Louisville Christian Academy transfer Austin Carr. He led LCA to the 2016 Class AA state championship when he threw for 1,610 yards and 21 touchdowns. Last season he threw for 1,124 yards and 11 scores.
“He’s got intangibles you can’t coach. He just commands the offense and has a leadership capacity I have not seen in my eight years of coaching. He reminds me of the quarterback at Boyle and I think he’s enjoying having more speed on the team with him this year,” Morton said. “He has worked himself into being a team captain and the kids all really believe in him.”