Beechwood, Belfry and Johnson Central are all, to varying degrees in the Cantrall Ratings, favorites in their respective football championship matchups this weekend. Not that it really matters to any of them.
You’d have to keep up with what’s being written about you to know whether or not you’re picked to take it all or fall at the end. Count Beechwood Coach Noel Rash among those saying “Nay” to getting caught up with media clippings.
“My mother and sister asked me at Thanksgiving dinner about where Russellville was ranked in comparison to us,” Rash said, “and I said, ‘You have a better chance of letting the dog answer that question.’”
Rash, whose team is the second-largest finals favorite, wasn’t bashing the media — in fact he lauded it for continuing to give high school sports a platform — but removing it from his vantage point during the season keeps him focused on the team, which is in its second straight title game after a six-year absence.
“After the season I’ll read it all,” Rash said. “I will read all of it.”
He hopes to read lots of good things after the Tigers’ matchup with Hazard on Friday, but Rash knows they’ll have their hands full against the Bulldogs.
“They’re gonna outsize us,” said Rash, noting the explosiveness and bruising nature of Hazard’s offense. “I think they’re bigger than everybody they play. We’ll use our speed, our wit and hopefully our tenacity to counter all that.”
Johnson Central is the softest favorite, a mere 4.2 points better than undefeated Franklin-Simpson in the Cantrall Ratings. Last season the Golden Eagles were an underdog against South Warren, which also came into the finals unbeaten.
Coach Jim Matney thought his team could have shown out better than it did in last year’s 36-6 loss to the Spartans if not for injuries to its starting quarterback and top two running backs heading into the finals.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we would have done this, that or the other, but I think that we would have been in a much closer ball game,” Matney said. That finals trip was the first for Matney, who was the head coach at Sheldon Clark for 20 years before taking over at Johnson Central in 2004.
The Golden Eagles have motivations that go far beyond high rankings and avenging a prior finals loss, however. In the past year they’ve lost three members of their football family, among them 15-year-old Luke Caudill, who drowned in April. Those losses are on top of the economic and geographic struggles Appalachian students confront daily and have to learn to channel in a world that often portrays them in a negative light, Matney said.
“That’s what mountain people do,” he said. “They find a way to survive, move on and do well.”
Belfry, another team from Eastern Kentucky, is making its seventh straight trip to Bowling Green. Longtime Coach Philip Haywood doesn’t mind the long trek west.
“Getting there certainly doesn’t get old by any means,” said Haywood, who’s in his 33rd season with the Pirates after nine seasons at Prestonsburg, his alma mater.
Saturday will be Belfry’s 12th visit to the finals under Haywood, and its fifth time matched up against Central. The Pirates are a sizable favorite — 9.5 points — and considered the fourth-best remaining team behind Trinity, Bowling Green and Lafayette in the Cantrall Ratings.
Belfry twice has lost to Central in the finals as the favorite, including in 2007 when it was undefeated and the Yellow Jackets came in 9-5, like this year’s edition. In 2010, Belfry was considered a mere 0.4 points better before a 46-7 loss, the most lopsided result in the championship series, which Central leads 4-1.
So, forgive Haywood if he scoffs at projections picking the Pirates.
“They are pretty constant,” he said of Central. “They’re very good defensively. Always have great athletes, they run so well. It’s hard to find anyone like that to play against. They’ve just got so much team speed.
“It wouldn’t matter if we played them 10 years ago or two years ago, that’s not going to change.”
KHSAA football finals
At Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green; all times p.m. and EST
Class A: Beechwood (13-1) vs. Hazard (12-2), 8
Class 3A: Belfry (13-1) vs. Central (9-5), 6
Class 6A: Lafayette (13-1) vs. Trinity (14-0), 9
Class 2A: Danville (12-2) vs. Louisville Christian (13-1), 1:30
Class 4A: Franklin-Simpson (14-0) vs. Johnson Central (13-1), 4:45
Class 5A: Bowling Green (14-0) vs. Pulaski County (12-2), 8
Class A: Beechwood (76.3), Hazard (62.5)
Class 2A: Louisville Christian (82.6), Danville (74.3)
Class 3A: Belfry (87.0), Central (77.5)
Class 4A: Johnson Central (86.5), Franklin-Simpson (82.3)
Class 5A: Bowling Green (91.7), Pulaski Co. (74.5)
Class 6A: Trinity (96.2), Lafayette (89.6)