It’s a good thing the state football championships aren’t held in June. Otherwise, Beechwood might not have been able to grit out a win like the one it earned over Hazard in the Class A Class A Russell Athletics/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl state finals Friday night in Bowling Green.
Beechwood, which prevailed 21-14, earned its 12th state title, matching Mayfield and St. Xavier for second most in state history.
KHSAA box score: Beechwood 21, Hazard 14
“We were a bad football team in June,” said Tigers Coach Noel Rash, whose program graduated 14 seniors from a team that fell to Pikeville in the 2015 state finals. “ … We had worked, and we had worked so hard to be bad. To watch us go from where we were in June to now is a testament to the senior leadership.
“Every kid on that team deserves credit, but especially our senior class.”
One of those seniors was Trevor Soward, who was named the game’s Russell Athletic MVP. Soward only accumulated six rushing yards on five carries but had two go-ahead 1-yard runs — including the game-deciding TD with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter — and an interception that halted a Hazard drive after Beechwood went up for good. He also had one catch for nine yards.
Hazard was noticeably bigger than Beechwood, particularly up front. The Tigers (14-1) were accustomed to being the smallest team on the turf according to Soward.
“They were a lot bigger than us,” Soward said. “We toughed it out and fought ’em hard. They’re a great ball team.”
The Bulldogs (12-3) bit first, taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 7-yard run by Cory Smith, who finished with a game-high 128 yards on 29 carries. Beechwood knotted things on its first play in the second quarter, a 17-yard scoring scamper by Aiden Justice. Soward gave Beechwood its first lead with 3:56 to play in the second quarter.
Hazard milked six minutes of clock spanning the end of the third quarter and opening minute of the fourth before tying the game, 14-14, on a Braxton Whitaker pass from Bailey Blair. Soward scored on the subsequent Beechwood possession.
Hazard had a shot down the stretch despite its untimely interception. It got the ball back with 4:23 remaining but was unable to move beyond its 32-yard line and turned the ball over on downs.
Solid tackling and two timeouts gave the Bulldogs another possession with 34 seconds left. That drive started off with a pass-interference call against Beechwood but gave way to an interception by Elijah McKenney, No. 8 on the year for the junior.
“Boy, does it make sense that McKenney, who I think led Northern Kentucky in interceptions, makes an interception on the last defensive play of the year,” Rash said.
The 11th-year head coach, who guided Beechwood to state championships in 2007 and 2008, lauded the smashmouth style of football Hazard brought to the table. It made the pure will of every player on the field matter “down after down after down,” he said.
Asked what it meant to end Beechwood’s title drought — last year’s finals loss was its first appearance since the 2008 championship run — Rash said trying to have his current players live up to past Tigers has never been a concern of his.
“This team, this moment, this group of seniors. That’s been our focus,” Rash said. “Whether we’ve won one six years in a row or haven’t won one in sixty years, it didn’t matter to me. It’s about this moment right now.”