Sometimes a win is more than a win.
It happened Friday evening on McAdams Field.
“It wasn’t an ordinary game. It’s our last time playing here,” Fort Knox senior Sidney Gradney said. “We came off of a few rough weeks and for our Senior Night last time playing on McAdams Field, Caverna wasn’t going to just let us roll over them. We came here and had a great game plan. We had a goal and that was to win and we weren’t going to leave without it.”
But the Eagles did roll over the Colonels.
Although the final was 42-22, it was never that close.
Trey Rowsey threw for 145 yards and three touchdowns, Gradney caught two of those and two others for 75 yards, and the defense intercepted three passes, recovered a fumble and an onside kick.
“It was really important,” Rowsey said of Fort Knox’s fast start. “We got a fast start on them last year. We got up 35-to-zero (Friday) and soon as we got in the locker room, I stood up and I said, ‘Zero. Zero.’ Same mentality. You have to keep fighting. You just can’t lay down. Last year they came back in the second half and made it a pretty close game. We didn’t want to do that again this year. We wanted to put them away quick.”
And they did.
Rowsey found fellow senior Chase Bellamy for 56 yards and Kohlton Reardon’s PAT made it 7-0 2:30 into the game. That capped a six-play, 85-yard drive.
Gradney picked off Caverna quarterback Drew Rhodes seven plays later and returned it 55 yards to the 35. Deondre Sparrow ran for 13 yards and Gradney hauled in a Rowsey spiral for a 13-0 lead at 4:40 of the first period.
“That’s always huge for our team, because we’re young and inexperienced,” second-year coach Wes Arnold said of the fast start. “If we get out to a fast start, it gives us confidence. If we have that confidence, it helps us learn how to win.
“I’ve been taking the ball lately first. I want us to get in a rhythm early and find some way to get success. That fast start was huge. You could see it on our kids’ faces. They thought, ‘We can do this.’ If we struggle early, you can see it in our kids’ faces, too.”
The Eagles didn’t stop there.
Sophomore Corey Brown picked off Rhodes two possessions later and returned it 65 yards to the 10, where Zai Salter-Zanders found the end zone on the first snap for a 21-0 lead after Bellamy ran in the two-point conversion at 10:49 of the second period.
“It’s a blessing to play with this program,” Gradney said. “We’ve grown over the last four years. It’s been a dream of ours to succeed here and our goal is to make this program better, whether we’re here or we’re not. It was a big game tonight.”
Healy recovered the fumble off a bad snap on the next possession, but the Eagles couldn’t take advantage after not coverting on fourth down at Caverna’s 21.
Bellamy picked off Rhodes on first down and Sparrow went in from the 4 three plays later for a 29-0 lead after Bellamy’s second two-point conversion with 3:11 left in the half.
Smith recovered the onside kick and Rowsey eventually found Gradney from 25 yards out on second-and-17 for a 35-0 advantage after the two-point run failed with 31.2 seconds left before halftime.
“All seven of these guys are amazing,” Arnold said of his seniors Rowsey, Gradney, Romie Craig, Chase Bellamy, Tanner Bellamy, Vernon Waterhouse and Kohlton Reardon. “We had four move in this year for their senior year (the Bellamy’s, Waterhouse and Reardon). I can’t imagine moving my senior year. Those guys came in here and stepped right in line, which was amazing. They’re here every day. They’ve been great leaders.
“When I took over I wanted to get the culture better. We’re not all the way there yet, but our culture is much better and it’s because of this senior class. You have Trey and Sidney who love this place and are true leaders. You’ve got the Bellamy’s, who are just true competitors, which I love about them. They hate to lose. They didn’t accept losing. That’s a big part, our kids need to see that — that it’s OK to be frustrated. They want to compete every play, every time.”
That was quite evident in the second half.
After the Eagles held the Colonels on a three-and-out to begin the second half, Rowsey eventually snuck in from the 2 to cap a five-play, 59-yard drive that made it 42-0 after Reardon’s PAT with 8:41 remaining in the third quarter and that started the running clock.
Fort Knox’s defense humbled Caverna through six possessions.
The Colonels (1-9) totaled 78 yards on their first 27 snaps.
Their next seven snaps — against the Eagles’ reserves — were for 179 yards and three scores.
“We got our JV guys in there for some time, then we put the varsity defense because they were just throwing bombs,” Rowsey said.
Caverna recovered an onside kick and Arnold put the starting defensive unit back on the field and the Colonels had two incomplete passes and lost 30 yards on the other two plays.
“Our program has had a lot of ups and downs,” said Gradney, who finished the regular season with 24 receptions for 456 yards and seven touchdowns. “We got a new coach and a whole coaching staff last year. It was something that we had to trust in him and he trust in us. By us being here, we really had to make a change. New coaching staff and young guys and the highest roster of 55 really impacted our whole team, impacted the community.
“It’s one of the best changes I’ve ever had. It’s the only high school I’ve ever been to. It’s a blessing to be here. I’m glad I was here. For a while, my freshman year, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is the place to be.’ I found him (Rowsey) and we’re like brothers. To finish with him, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Rowsey has thrown for 950 yards on the campaign.
“Honestly, it’s a military kid thing,” he said of the constant turnover. “We’re probably the most resilient kids you’ve met. At Fort Knox, it’s something that we’re used to. I’ve lived in seven different places. I’ve always been the new kid. I’ve lived in places for two years, a year. I’ve had to make friends very quickly and then leave them. If I see a new kid come in, I’m the first one up to him. I know how it feels being the new kid and not having anybody to talk to, always being the kid in the back of the class.
“Football is a family. You have to bring somebody in really quick. If they don’t understand the game, you have to let the coaches coach. It’s frustrating at times, especially when you have a sophomore or freshman come in and say, ‘I want to play football because it’s Fort Knox.’ You have to stick with it and support them.”
Fort Knox’s seven wins under Arnold are the best stretch in the program since the 2009-10 seasons.
“This program has struggled for so long,” Arnold said. “Just to make winning a regular habit is hard, but I think we’re getting close there. Seven wins in two years is a pretty good stretch for our program. We’ll see what happens next week. I think we’re getting used to the idea of winning, and how to win. Here we’re trying teach kids how to win with new kids every year. We’ve got new kids that have either never played, never been a part of a football team or never played snap. That’s a challenge here, but these kids have really accepted it.”
Of the 25 possible returning players from last year’s squad, 11 were back in a Fort Knox uniform.
“Every year was a rebuilding year,” Gradney said. “Last year we graduated 12 seniors, the year before we graduated nine or 10 seniors. It’s something you have to be used to. Just because people leave doesn’t mean you give up. Me and him (Rowsey) got together and said, ‘You know, this is gonna be our team one day.’ We’re gonna support people and bring in as many people as we can. For us to be together and for our coaches to support us and this community to support us means a lot to us and it really has grown.”
That is because of Arnold and the staff.
“Coach Arnold came to us and said, ‘I’m gonna be the football coach’ and we immediately bought in,” Rowsey said. “We knew we were gonna be here for two years. The seniors last year, it was kind of hard for them to buy in immediately because it’s just one year. One of the few players — Sidney and I — that are still on the team this year, we pushed everybody to buy in. We had spring lifts this year. Sidney and I were there as much as we could be. I was there every day, he had track practice.
“You give and get. Everything you do you have to do with passion and that’s what Fort Knox football is about. We’re about passion and resiliency.”
Fort Knox visits Louisville Holy Cross next week in the first round of the playoffs.