South Warren quarterback Caden Veltkamp got a little excited as he looked over the defense and waited on the snap with his team holding a precarious 24-19 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Facing a third-and-3 on the Frederick Douglass 31-yard line, Veltkamp dropped the ball as it came to him in the shotgun formation. Luckily, the Kroger Field turf gave a friendly bounce back into his hands and he let it fly up the right hash mark to tight end Tyler Snell.
“I knew it was a touchdown before we snapped the ball, so I was just excited to get the ball out of my hands,” Veltkamp said, smiling. “I picked it up and Snell made a great catch and that really sealed it.”
The touchdown and a two-point conversion for a 32-19 lead gave the Spartans enough breathing room to hold on for the 38-26 victory in the 2021 UK Orthopaedics State Football Finals Class 5A championship over Frederick Douglass. The win marked the third state title in program history — all of them under head coach Brandon Smith.
“Our players made plays in big situations when they had to,” said Smith, who also led the Spartans to the top in 2015 and 2018. “They’ve done it all year long. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Snell earned the championship game’s most valuable player award thanks to that catch and another spectacular one he made in the first half. South Warren faced a third-and-12 on Snell’s first highlight, a diving grab on the goal line of Veltkamp’s slightly underthrown pass into double coverage. The ball hit his hands a split second before he hit the turf. Both of his TDs gave South Warren a two-score margin.
“(Veltkamp) put the ball in the right spot,” Snell said of the first catch. “He set me up for success and I made a play like we talked about. … We’ve all dreamed about this our senior year to come out with a state title. And it happened.”
Douglass, which had stifled all of its playoff opponents defensively to this point, had trouble getting South Warren off the field. The Spartans had the ball for more than 32 minutes, twice that of the Broncos.
Veltkamp, a Western Kentucky commit, completed 19 of 24 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. The Spartans (14-1) ran it to great effect as well, totaling 166 yards on the ground led by Luke Burton’s 79 rushing yards and two TDs.
“Teams haven’t run the ball against us all year. And I think we were kind of shocked,” Douglass Coach Nathan McPeek said.
Douglass miscues didn’t help the Broncos’ cause.
Trailing 17-12 at halftime, Douglass could not advance the ball on its first possession of the third quarter. To make matters worse, a fake punt attempt failed and gave South Warren the ball on the Douglass 45-yard line. The Spartans capped a nine-play drive with a 1-yard Burton TD for a 24-12 lead with 5:38 to play in the third quarter.
Bizarrely, Douglass (13-2) tried a fake punt again on its next possession. It failed, but South Warren reciprocated with its own failed fake punt to let Douglass off the hook.
“Offensively we kind of sputtered in the third quarter,” said McPeek, who was offensive coordinator when the Broncos reached the finals in 2019, a 14-7 loss to Covington Catholic. “I thought that was the difference in the game. Once we got going, we did some good things in the fourth. These kids did a great job of fighting in the fourth quarter and putting us within one score.”
Douglass closed back within 24-19 on a fourth-and-goal from the 6 pass play as Samuel Cornett threw across his body to Dane Key in the left corner of the end zone. It was their second hookup of the game. Key, a much-heralded Kentucky commit, took a Cornett pass 73 yards for a score in the second quarter that helped keep Douglass in the game.
“It didn’t turn out our way tonight, but I still love the team,” said Key, who had 155 yards receiving. “I can’t really say much. It’s still really hurting, but our team, they’re going to come back next year. I have full faith in them.”
After Snell’s second TD for the Spartans looked as if it had sealed the game, Douglass drove 80 yards in two plays — the first a 53-yard pass from Cornett to Key and the second a 27-yard TD pass from Cornett to Cameron Dunn to cut the lead back to 32-26 with 1:48 left in the game.
However, the onside kick by Douglass was recovered by South Warren, and Luke Burton converted a fourth-and-inches into a 24-yard clinching TD for the final margin.
“Our kids did not give up,” McPeek said. “They fought. … We’re in year five of our program and have been to two states. I haven’t gotten the job done, but that doesn’t take away from what these kids have done and the work they put in.”
With his third title, South Warren’s Smith closed the gap on his father, longtime Boyle County Coach Chuck Smith, who claimed six state championships with the Rebels in eight tries over three decades. Three of those came with Brandon as Boyle County quarterback. This is the first state championship they’ve won together with Brandon as head coach and Chuck as a volunteer assistant in his retirement.
“It’s been a special season. I’ve always kind of secretly wanted to coach with my dad,” Brandon Smith said. “I caught him at the right time when he was bored in July and got him to come out and help us out this year.
“Really with him around it kind of made me realize how not good of a coach I am — just by the things that he says and the suggestions he makes. … He’s still got the most energy on the field. He’s been a huge help. I really, truly believe we wouldn’t be here if he didn’t decide to help us out. He’s been that much of an asset.”