HEBRON, Ky.-- Defenders on the Conner High School football team have spent most of the 2016 season frustrating and shutting down opposing offenses with a fast and fine-tuned defensive unit.
“We’re a high-speed defense,” senior outside linebacker Peyton Van Horn said. “We get to the ball on every single play. We just try to be the best we can.”
The Cougars are 8-2 and are ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press Class 6-A state poll. They’ll seek to shut down yet another foe at 7:30 p.m. Friday when they host Paul Laurence Dunbar (3-7) in the first round of the Class 6-A state playoffs.
Conner has not allowed more than 14 points in any of its eight wins, has allowed only a touchdown five times and has recorded one shutout. The team has allowed only 233.8 yards per game through 10 games.
“There is not one position on the defense that we’re weak at,” senior middle linebacker Austin Cain said. “Some teams have weak links. We have a good all-around defense. We approach each game very competitively and kind of with a swagger.”
Cain and Van Horn are both three-year starters and are the backbone of that stifling defense.
“Cain is just a student of the game and has an understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Conner coach James Trosper said. “He studies film, watches our opponents and understands it very well. He’s the quarterback of the defense. Peyton just has a motor. He goes 100 miles an hour and makes tons of tackles.”
Van Horn leads the team with 120 tackles, including 117 solo tackles, and has made three fumble recoveries and an interception.
“Peyton is an absolute athlete,” Cain said. “He is very quick off the ball. I don’t think there is any lineman who can compete. He’s the real deal. He’s very quick, has great hands and he squeezes very well. When he squeezes, it offers more space for us inside linebackers.”
Cain is also a two-year team captain and has made 63 tackles overall with 58 solos this season.
“He is a beast,” Van Horn said. “He fills his gaps like no other and he lights people up. He has a high motor and gives it his all every single play. He’s one of my best friends and I’ve been playing with him since sophomore year. I know whenever I’m down, he’ll be there to pick me up and when I make a mistake, he’ll finish it.”
Despite the defensive dominance and an offense putting up more than 35 points per game, this Conner team has mostly flown under the radar this season. The Cougars graduated 18 seniors from last season’s 8-4 team and with Simon Kenton and Ryle bringing back teams with some high expectations, many didn’t count on Conner to be in competition in 6-A.
“The biggest thing is this senior class is a really good class,” Trosper said. “A lot of them played as sophomores on our 3-8 team two years ago. They had been through the battles and they are really athletic and really competitive. So up until now, we’ve started to make some noise and people have started to recognize us.”
The only two losses this season have been a 39-27 loss at Simon Kenton Sept. 2 and a 42-28 loss at home against Ryle Oct. 14. The Cougars led at some point in each of those games.
“We were up seven against (Simon Kenton) and against Ryle, we were up 28-21 in the third quarter and we just didn’t finish,” Van Horn said. “We’ve been working and we’ve been preparing since Ryle happened. That’s our main goal is to finish what we start.”
Cougars players would like another shot at Ryle, the No. 2 team in the AP 6-A state poll, and at No. 6 Simon Kenton. Two postseason wins could earn the Cougars another date with Ryle and Simon Kenton could loom in the state semifinals in three weeks should Conner advance that far.
But nobody is looking past Dunbar Friday or beyond what the Cougars themselves have to do to win games.
“They’re very athletic,” Trosper said of Dunbar. “They’re kind of an under-the-radar team also. They’ve got some guys that can get some things done.
“You’ve got to stay injury-free, you have to have some breaks go your way and you’ve got to have a little luck. There is a lot of luck that goes into everything you do when you go into the playoffs.”