It wasn’t going to be pretty. They were supposed to get destroyed. They were surrounded by the opposing team and made fun of during warmups.
But at halftime, the Kentucky Spartans semi-professional football team found themselves up 34-8 against the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, the Kings Comets. The Comets’ depth eventually helped them take the lead with 31 seconds to go, and they held on for the win. It was the only loss in the surprisingly successful first season of the revitalized Spartans team.
A year earlier, when they were still the Daviess County Spartans, the team was on the verge of folding after its roster had dropped below 20 players. That’s when Matthew Douglas decided to come to Owensboro and take over.
Douglas, 26, left arena football to become a co-owner of the Spartans, and he’s helped completely turn the program around. The Spartans are coming off a regular season championship in the Mid-State Football Association (MFSA) and preparing for the semifinals of their league playoff.
The Spartans will play host to the Tri-State Titans at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the College Middle View football field. A win would send them to the championship game, where the team is hoping to earn an automatic bid to the national playoffs.
Despite the immediate success on the field, Douglas said there were numerous off-the-field challenges that almost ended the Spartans in 2015, the first year after he took over. The team has to do all it’s own fundraising, and a checkered past of off the field and poor performance on it left them with few sponsors.
They didn’t get their jerseys until a couple weeks before the season began, and they let the manufacturer choose they colors based on what was available on short notice. It was also a mashup of random talent and last-minute additions, and the coaching staff didn’t know what to expect.
Offensive coordinator Ney Gore, 40, said they didn’t even know who to put on the field, even though they had a sudden influx of talented graduates of the local high schools and Kentucky Wesleyan College.
“All of a sudden, we had a really good nucleus,” Gore said. “But going into that first season, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know how to win. All we knew is Evansville was a rival, and an Owensboro team had never beaten a Louisville team.”
Owensboro’s Evan Harvey, 26, won the starting quarterback role two weeks into the season when he led an 85-yard touchdown drive in the waning minutes to beat Evansville. They then drubbed a Louisville team, and the Spartans have rolled their way through each season since.
All the winning comes at a cost, though. Most of the players have a full-time job, and many of them also have a significant other. Finding the balance in tough, and it’s not an easy decision to keep playing.
“The biggest sacrifice is our significant others,” Douglas said. “Most of us have kids. My daughter does gymnastics, and I miss them all the time. I told my kids I’ve got one more year, then I’ll focus 100 percent on what they do.”
Some players, like 29-year-old Owensboro High School graduate Tyson Hamilton, have even passed up trips overseas or offers from Canadian and arena football leagues. He said his family played a role in not going, but he encourages others to take the chance if they can.
“I had a lot of stuff going on with my kids, and if you’re in a relationship it’s hard,” Hamilton said. “If you’re going to be gone, you’re going to be gone for a pretty good amount of time. I tell young kids to go to college if they have the chance and to make the best of what they can. You’re going to regret it if you don’t take your chance. You can always come back home and play.”
Harvey and Douglas actually took advantage of an opportunity to play overseas for three weeks last year, but have had to turn down offers for longer periods because they can’t afford the time away from their jobs or family.
Providing opportunities on the field is a big focus of the Spartans, but Harvey said players join the team for several reasons.
“Some guys play to try to go overseas and play professionally,” he said. “Some guys play just because they like playing football and don’t want to give it up. Some guys play just because they want to be a part of something.”
Harvey said it’s been a long road for the team, but they’re hoping they’ve created a program with lasting power. They’ve instituted a strict behavior policy in which players can be voted off the team any time they get in trouble with the law. The team also went through several name changes and owners in the 10 years since it became a semi-pro team.
“We want to build this up to where it continues on after the core group of guys are done playing,” Harvey said. “I know we’ve had discussions about how many more years we’re going to do this. We want it to still be around 10 years from now, and we want it to still be the Spartans.”