By Tommie Kendall
After leading the Henry County Wildcats to one of their best football seasons in recent memory, seniors Cari Dunaway and Travis McClanahan will take their game to the next level. The duo, which played both ways for the Cats, signed to play for Campbellsville University next fall, following in head coach Chris Engstrand's footsteps.
Engstrand played linebacker and defensive end for Campbellsville from 1997 to 2000, and coached Dunaway and McClanahan during their final two high school seasons at HCHS. Now, the duo will make the transition from Wildcats to Tigers.
"Regardless of where they want to go, I always tell the players to find a college or university that has a degree that fits what they want to do, and to find a place that feels like home," Engstrand said. "You have to factor in everything and find a place that's a fit for you. Obviously I'm proud of all of our seniors this year, and I'm glad we were able to find these two young men a place to go play football and continue their education."
Dunaway and McClanahan helped lead the Wildcats to a 7-3 regular-season mark and the regular-season district title. They then led the Cats to the school's first two wins in a single state playoff with victories over Western Hills (20-7) and North Oldham (15-7), which gave Henry the playoff district title as well. But in third-round action, Henry was defeated by a tough Paducah Tilghman squad (36-13), ending their season at 9-4.
Ironically, Dunaway and McClanahan will now play for Paducah's coach, Perry Thomas, who will start his first season as the head coach at Campbellsville this fall. Over the past eight seasons, Thomas has guided Paducah to a combined 70-13 record, eight playoff appearances, five district championships, two regional championships and two state semi-final games. In his first season as a college coach, Perry inherits a program that went 0-10 last fall.
Perry ran a spread offense and worked out of a 3-5 base defense while at Paducah - similar to Henry County - and will likely do the same at Campbellsville.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Perry's going to do a good job at Campbellsville," said Engstrand, who has been disappointed with the direction of the Tigers' football program during the past few seasons. "He's already busting his butt recruiting. I feel like he's going to "restore the roar" as he puts it. And I think Cari and Travis have the ability to help them in a couple of years."
Both Dunaway and McClanahan got their starts in football at a young age - Dunaway starting out with the New Castle Chiefs in the Henry County Youth Football League as a third grader and McClanahan starting with the Campbellsburg Bengals as a fifth grader. The two teams had a showdown in the championship game during their sixth-grade season, which went into double overtime with the Bengals upsetting the undefeated Chiefs.
"I was so mad that we lost," a smiling Dunaway remembers years later. "We hadn't lost a game up until the finals. I can't believe they got us in double overtime." McClanahan didn't play in the game due to an injury, but still remembers the contest.
That was the final time the two were on opposite sidelines as they played middle school football together and high school.
This past season, as seniors, Dunaway played tight end on offense and linebacker on defense, while McClanahan was switched from running back to wide receiver and also played corner. Dunaway finished with 54 catches for 788 yards and nine touchdown receptions. Meanwhile, McClanahan added 56 catches for 826 yards and eight touchdowns. Both were named to the All-District team and both played in Kentucky's East-West All-Star Game in December.
While leading the Wildcats to a season to remember, Dunaway and McClanahan were also looking into which college to play football for. They wanted to go to the same college, and finally narrowed it down to Campbellsville, Kentucky Wesleyan, Union College and the University of the Cumberlands. McClanahan visited Campbellsville four times and Dunaway twice, and they both agreed to play for Perry and the Tigers.
"Coach E (Engstrand) knew a lot of people - he definitely helped us out a lot and stuck his neck out there for us," said McClanahan, who will most likely stay on the offensive side of the ball at receiver while at Campbellsville. "I chose Campbellsville because it's kind of like Henry County with smaller classes and getting to know the professors."
McClanahan and Dunaway plan on redshirting next season, then getting a season under their belts the second year before moving into more of a key role as redshirt sophomores, they both said.
"When I was little, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL," Dunaway said. "I didn't really know anything about playing college, and never even thought about it until I was in the seventh or eighth grade... I just love playing football. I'll play wherever they need me to. I just want to play."
Both agree the speed of the game and the strength of the players will be the biggest differences from playing Friday night high school games to Saturday afternoon college games. And they both know it will be a tough road ahead, but one they're willing to travel.
"Coach E told us the stories about the players that snuck out in the middle of the night during the first few weeks," Dunaway said. "I know it's going to be a lot tougher than high school."
"If they can tough it out that first year, I think they'll be okay," Engstrand said. "A lot of guys I saw just go home because they just couldn't hack it that first year and they ended up dropping out or not coming back. If they can make it through that first year, I think they'll be in it for the long haul."
Three players from Henry County signed with Campbellsville a few years ago, but none of them ever suited up for a game. McClanahan and Dunaway hope it's different for them.
"A lot of people always tell us we can't do it, especially if we ever messed up in a game or did something wrong," McClanahan said. "People have told us we can't play college football - they still do. We just want to prove those people wrong. That's our motivation."
"Quitting," Dunaway added, "that's one thing I don't plan on doing."
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