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Thanks to its defense, South Warren survives, beats CovCath

December 2, 2018 FieldsColumn

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South Warren’s Rowdy Shea (28) came up with the big fumble recovery at the 1-yard line that helped preserve the Spartans’ 20-14 win over Covington Catholic in the Class 5A finals. (KHSAA photo by Matt Goins)

BY MIKE FIELDS

When South Warren took a 20-0 lead on defending champion Covington Catholic early in the third quarter of Sunday’s Class 5A title game, Spartans’ quarterback Gavin Spurrier and his coach Brandon Smith had entirely different takes on the situation.

Spurrier said he thought he and his teammates “had it in cruise control” and were well on their way to a championship celebration. 

Smith felt differently. He thought the entire second half was slow torture, and admitted he felt like he has “going to have a stroke” when CovCath closed to within 20-14 and had a chance to tie it or take the lead in the closing minutes.

As it turned out, South Warren’s defense rewarded both the exuberant Spurrier and the apprehensive Smith by preserving a 20-16 victory on a windy afternoon at Kroger Field.

It was a wild and crazy finish.

CovCath, riding a 29-game winning streak that included a 43-7 beatdown of South Warren in last year’s semifinals, rallied thanks to Michael Mayer’s 58-yard touchdown catch and Casey McGinness’ 77-yard scoring run.

The Colonels then threatened to take the lead when they drove to the Spartans’ 10-yard line with less than four minutes left. On the next play, McGinness bulled his way inside the 5. As the scrum heaved forward, there was no whistle, and as the bodies finally tumbled to the turf, the ball popped out.

There to fall on it was South Warren linebacker Rowdy Shea.

“Coach Smith always hammers into us at practice that you don’t stop until the whistle,” Shea said. “I didn’t hear a whistle. I saw the  ball, so I jumped on it as quickly as I could.”

Spartans’ defensive tackle Jacob Lacey also said it was just a matter of doing what they had been coached.

“We do situational stuff like that every week in practice, so we knew our guys could make a play when we needed it. We hold ’em up and keep hitting. We kept hitting and we got the ball out. It was a great play.”

The game still wasn’t over. After CovCath forced South Warren into a punting situation, the Spartans chose to take a safety instead of risking having a punt blocked. So Clayton Bush took the snap and ran out the back of the end zone, allowing CovCath to close the gap to 20-16.

After the ensuing kick, the Colonels got the ball back, but with less than a minute left and the wind howling, they didn’t come close to scoring. Their last gasp was a pass to the end zone that a diving Jack Coldiron couldn’t reach.

Chuck Smith, left, with his son Brandon after Sunday’s game. The Smiths now have 8 state titles between them.

Smith, whose dad Chuck has coached Boyle County to six state titles, said he learned the importance of defense from his dad.

“He taught me everything I know,” Brandon said. “You can have a great offense, but if you don’t have a great defense you’ll win some games, but you won’t win championships.”

Chuck Smith watched nervously, and excitedly, from the sidelines as his son guided the Spartans to their second undefeated state title in four years.

“Their defense came through all season long,” Chuck said. “This was a great win against a great team.”

Brandon Smith wasn’t the only Spartan with a more famous family member looking on.

Spurrier’s grandfather, Steve Spurrier, was in the crowd at Kroger Field. Steve Spurrier was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida in 1966, and he went on to coach the Gators to a national championship. He also won plenty of games at South Carolina.

(Gavin’s dad, Steve Spurrier Jr., was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky the last few seasons before taking a job at Washington State earlier this year.)

Gavin, a 6-foot-3 senior, said he got some advice from his grandfather before the finals.

“I called him last night, and he told me to stay confident, be strong and stay in the pocket and make your throws,” Gavin said. “I’m lucky to have a grandpa like him to talk football with me. It’s amazing.”

Spurrier threw for 237 yards and 2 TDs against CovCath. For the season he passed for 2,731 yards and 41 TDs, and was intercepted only three times.

Smith said Spurrier meant “everything” to South Warren’s offense. “He can make throws, he gets us in the right plays, makes the right reads and he’s extremely intelligent. When you have that in high school football, then you do this — you win a championship.”

But Spurrier, who’ll attend Duke as a preferred walk-on, knows what’s happening on the other side of the ball is important too.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve got the best defense in Kentucky, probably the best in the nation,” he said. “They’re amazing. I’m so lucky.

Gavin Spurrier, grandson of Steve Spurrier, threw for 2,731 yards and 41 TDs this season.

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