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Solid foundation in place, Sayre prepares for first full season of varsity football since 1976

By Chad Hensley
Special to KyForward

Building a high school football program is like building a house in that it needs to start with a good, solid foundation. Heading into their first full varsity season with a strong foundation will be the Sayre Spartans.

Many people are familiar with Chad Pennington because he threw for more than 13,000 yards and 115 touchdowns while at Marshall University. He also enjoyed an NFL career that spanned 11 seasons combined with the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.

Since 2018, Pennington has directed the rebuild of a Sayre football program that had last played in 1976.

Chad Pennington

“We rebooted the Sayre football program for the first time since 1976 in 2018,” said Pennington, who has led the Spartans to a 2-8 overall record with a limited varsity schedule. “This year will mark the first full varsity season. The program has participated in a mix of varsity and JV games during its first two years.”

While Pennington will be calling the shots as the head coach, it will be his son Cole leading the team on the field as the quarterback.

Cole Pennington, who is a 6-foot-2, 187-pound junior, is back for a second stint as the quarterback for the Spartans after passing for 1,384 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019.

The Spartans return a total of 10 starters from a 2019 team that went 1-7.

Pennington said that the talent at the skill positions on offense would be one of the team’s strengths heading into 2020. Outside of Cole Pennington, the Spartans also return their top running back and two top receivers.

Caleb Kern, a junior running back, led the team in rushing with 273 yards on 64 carries including two touchdowns. Jackson Marshall and Michael Madden are back as the top targets for Cole Pennington at their respective wide receiver positions.

Marshall, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior, led the receiving corps with 42 catches, 442 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Madden, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, followed closely behind with 315 yards on 28 receptions and one touchdown.

One building block that the Spartans wanted to construct in the offseason was an up-tempo, no-huddle offense like what Pennington ran while at Marshall. The offseason, however, was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sayre Spartans are preparing for their first full season of varsity football since 1976. (Sayre photo)

“COVID has definitely affected how we will operate, including a no-huddle system,” said Pennington. “I think my players trust my opinion, but they also know they can ask questions and give suggestions. I want them to participate in the process.”

With Marshall and Madden both carrying at least a 4.0 grade point average in the classroom and looking to have breakout seasons, that duo would have attracted numerous college offers had it not been for the pandemic.

“This summer would have been instrumental in the recruiting process for multiple players,” Pennington said. “Obviously, COVID did not allow that to materialize.”

In addition to the 10 starters returning on offense, Pennington will also have eight starters back on defense that will be led by Kern, Madden, Ford Webb and Bill Bradley. Kern tallied 41 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery while Madden added 38 tackled, 1.5 sacks and an interception.

Webb, a junior linebacker, led the team in tackles in 2019 with 53. Bradley, a junior defensive tackle who Pennington thinks will have a breakout season, will look to help a defense that struggled to stop the opposition’s running game in 2019 after allowing an average of just more than 290 yards per game.

While stopping the run was a problem for the Spartans, the pass defense was a key point that Pennington can build upon as the team allowed just 69.75 yards per game through the air.

Returning in the secondary for the Spartans are Carlos Ramirez, Cory Givens and Justin Freeman, all of whom recorded two interceptions each.

With the KHSAA in the second year of a four-year district plan for its football-playing schools and Sayre being a new program, many people expected the Spartans to be ineligible for postseason play in 2020. But thanks to the unfortunate dissolving of another program, Sayre will be headed to the playoffs.

Chad Pennington threw for more than 13,000 yards and 115 touchdowns while playing at Marshall University. (MU photo)

“Sayre will actually be able to compete as the fourth seed in Class 1A District 7 after the KHSAA Board voted to allow that to happen to take the place of Jenkins, (which) dropped its program,” Pennington said.

While Jenkins will no longer have a program, the Cavaliers will forever be remembered in the Spartans football lore as Sayre’s first win after 40 years of not having football came on Oct. 5, 2018, by a final score of 46-14 in a game played at Kentucky Christian University.

Being the automatic four seed in Class 1A District 7 this fall means Sayre will likely face either Hazard or Pikeville in the first round of the playoffs. Pikeville is the defending Class 1A state champion and is the favorite to win it all again this year.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic putting a damper on the offseason and delaying the start of the regular season, Pennington is impressed by how hard his team has worked to get the program to where it is today.

“Kids are resilient. Football teaches you how to be resilient and adapt to change. It was a great learning experience,” said Pennington.

Pennington added that his team’s “overall team decision making and football acumen” will get better as their experience with the game builds as well.

Sept. 11 – EMINENCE, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 – BEREA, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25 – TRIMBLE COUNTY, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 2 – BYE
Oct. 9 – @ Carroll County, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 – Phelps*, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 – BISHOP BROSSART, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 30 – @ Pineville, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 6 – Fairview*, 7:30 p.m.
* = Game to be played at Kentucky Christian’s Knights Stadium.






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