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Reflections on Bourbon County’s championship season, 20 years later

November 29, 2017 FieldsColumn

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Josh Lovell (51) hoisted the championship trophy after Bourbon County’s victory over Owensboro Catholic in the 1997 Class 2A title game. Vince Grupposo (3) and Dereck Oldham (with raised helmet in background) celebrated with their teammates.

BY MIKE FIELDS

When Bourbon County captured the Class 2A title in 1997, it was regarded as one of the most improbable football championships in state history. The Colonels hadn’t had a winning record in a decade, and had NEVER won a playoff game before Dudley Hilton took over as their coach in mid-summer 20 years ago.

Bourbon County posted a 7-3 record in the regular season before embarking on a remarkable run through the post-season. After slipping by Somerset 15-12 in the first round of the playoffs, the Colonels registered consecutive shutouts against Boyle County (24-0), Lexington Catholic (20-0) and Lawrence County (14-0). They capped things off by beating Owensboro Catholic 39-28 in the finals on a bitter-cold night at Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium.

Two decades later, I was curious to hear some of the key players on that Bourbon County team reminisce about their championship season.

They were teenagers then. They’re in their mid to late 30s now, and scattered across the country.

 — Nick Kendall, who was a speedy running back for the Colonels, lives in Hawaii with his wife and two sons.

— Dusty Lotz, an undersized but fierce nose guard, has lived in Florida since graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in mechanical engineering. He and his wife have a son and daughter.

— Carter Conley, who quarterbacked the title team, is an assistant football coach at Centre College, his alma mater. He and his wife live in Lexington with their two daughters and son. 

— Tim Perysian, who starred at tailback and linebacker, did two tours in Iraq as a Navy helicopter mechanic after 9/11. He lives in Michigan and has four daughters.

— Jeremy Wigglesworth, who returned a blocked field goal 85 yards for the clinching touchdown in the state finals, is a manager at the Paris Stockyards. He has a six-month old son named Angus.

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While the Bourbon County players understood why the fans and media thought of them as Cinderella in cleats, they themselves weren’t surprised they won the state title.

They all but predicted it.

Lotz still has his Bourbon County yearbook from the 1996-97 school year, when he was a junior. Conley and Josh Lovell (who played center) signed the yearbook before their senior football season (’97) got going. 

Lovell had a “secret mirror message” that he wrote backward (shown below): “Dusty, Let’s have a ring to talk about.” He meant a state championship ring.

Conley followed the same line of thinking with his inscription: “Dusty, see you on the carpet.” He was referring to the artificial turf at Cardinal Stadium. (Conley also drew “da ring!”)

The players knew they had the makings of a really good team. They had won big in middle school, and were undefeated as freshmen and sophomore jayvees.

“From the outside looking in, nobody expected much from us. But inside, we knew how good we could be,” Lotz said. “The three of us — Josh, Carter and me — knew we had what it took to win it all. So it was kind of neat that they wrote what they did in my yearbook.”

Tim Persyian was a two-way star for the Colonels. On offense, he led the team in rushing and scoring, and on defense led the team in tackles.

Conley agreed. Even though the Colonels had won only one game his sophomore year and three his junior season, “I knew we had a real good core of talent. It never looked good on paper, the wins and losses, but everything was getting incrementally better.”

Especially with the addition of the Perysian brothers, Tim and Tom, who had moved to Kentucky from Michigan the year before.

“When Tom and I got there, it was like we gave them that extra oomph,” Tim said. “It was a combination of the stars aligning and the talent coming together. It was pretty awesome.”

And Tim Perysian was a pretty awesome player.

Lotz described him as “an X-factor” on both sides of the ball. As a junior on the ’97 title team, he led the offense in rushing (with more than 2,400 yards) and scoring (30 touchdowns), and he also led the defense in tackles.

“Tim was a stud, a beast of a kid,” Lotz said. “He didn’t have big chest muscles, but he was 6-foot, 200 pounds and an all-natural athlete. When we got him, it was the icing on the cake.”

Kendall recognized the team’s overall talent level, too.

“People felt we were kind of a Cinderella team and they thought some luck happened to get us there,” he said. “But it really was the talent and the (preparation).

“And putting Dudley with us at just the right time kind of brought everything together.”

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Dudley Hilton had proven he knew how to win by building top-level programs at Breathitt County and Bell County.

He arrived at Bourbon County driving a Bell County-blue Ford F-150 pickup that he got after guiding the Bobcats to the 1991 state championship.

Bourbon County Coach Dudley Hilton talked to his team before the finals.

“He always wore his state championship ring, and he drove his blue Bobcat truck to practice and parked it right above the field,” Kendall recalled. “He said it was the kind of legacy he built at Bell County, and you trusted him that he could do it at Bourbon County too.”

Conley thought Bourbon County was the perfect fit for Hilton.

“Dudley’s one of those disarming guys. Real fun to hang with, but brilliant in his own way. He had that country persona coming from Bell County, and that fit right in with our mentality,” Conley said. “We were just blue-collar, hardworking guys, some who worked on farms, and we took right to him. Not that we were a bunch of bumpkins, but it was Bourbon County.”

Not that Hilton took it easy on them.

“He was a real go-getter, not laid back at all,” Wigglesworth said. “And he was tough. Oh, yeah. If he hadn’t been tough on us we’d never done what we did.”

Perysian said Hilton “embodied a father figure, and you didn’t want to do anything to embarrass him. He brought us all together. He made us walk the line and be accountable.”

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Hilton, of course, was the highest ranking Colonel, but he wasn’t the team’s only leader.

Conley, Lovell and Lotz were also responsible for pointing the way to success.

Conley and Lovell each earned Eagle Scout status that fall, and Lotz was one step away from reaching it.

“We took a lot of leadership training courses, and we did a lot of things to try to be team leaders,” Lotz said. “That echoed in the team’s cohesiveness. I’m a firm believer that was one reason we played like we did.”

Conley agreed.

“We were in (advanced placement) classes and challenging ourselves,” he said. “You had some strong character traits there. Yes, we were all kids and all knuckleheads. But when you’ve got a bunch of high school machismo and testosterone flowing through a team, a couple beacons of leadership can go a long way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say our leadership helped.”

Having eight seniors, most of whom played both ways, was a big plus, too. But Lotz also credited some of the unsung heroes, like sophomore linemen J.T. Barnes, who didn’t let a broken finger keep him from playing, and Luke Fister, and junior defensive end Kyle St. John.

“It was a very selfless team,” Lotz said. “Everybody knew their roles and trusted each other to do them.”

Bourbon County’s 1997 title team included 8 seniors. Clockwise, starting top left, Carter Conley (13), Jason Greenlee (23), Nick Kendall (21), Heath Buckler (64), Josh Lovell (51), Vince Grupposo (3), Dusty Lotz (pretending to bite Conley’s leg), and Cecil Buckler (79).

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Bourbon County — the community, not just the school — celebrated the Colonels’ state championship every way possible.

While the players basked in the glory, most of them didn’t realize just how big a deal it was.

“At that young age, I was still selfish and an idiot,” Conley said. “I knew it was a positive thing for all the moms and dads and little kids, but I didn’t quite grasp how important it was to the community. They embraced the players for something good. It was like the Friday Night Lights movie.”

Lotz remembers a lot about that championship season, and while he doesn’t dwell on the past, he said he cherishes the memories.

“I’ve used that to remind myself that at one point I was a champion, and I remember what it took to get to that point. It didn’t come easy. It didn’t happen overnight.

“That taught me about real life. I have a really good position now — I’m technical adviser of a big construction company — but I put in years of hard work to get here.”

Most of the players still have their 1997 championship rings. Some display them in their homes. Some have them locked away in safes.

Tim Perysian’s ring went missing and he’s never been able to find it. But he still has the most important thing he earned that football season 20 years ago.

“Honestly, the ring was just a piece of jewelry to me,” he said. “The long-lasting brotherhood I have with the guys on that team are all I need.”

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