Nine kids showed up at the first practice when Michael Sizemore took over Bracken County’s football program in 2012. That edition started a program-best 5-1 before losing five straight to end the season.
This year’s version of the Polar Bears, which matched that 5-1 start after rallying for a 43-41 win at Paris on Friday night, is less likely to face a second-half letdown thanks to a senior-rich group that’s bought into what Sizemore’s sold that last four years. They were ranked No. 10 in the most recent Associated Press rankings and likely will climb next week.
“We just stuck with the plan,” Sizemore said. “When these kids were sophomores and everything was looking bleak, we focused on everything that we could to build positives in our program.”
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In 2014, when this year’s seniors were sophomores, Bracken County went 0-11. They were held scoreless in five games and were outscored 569-63 on the season, the worst spread in Class A that year
“We met the kids where they were and then we built from there,” Sizemore said. “These kids have done a heck of a job.”
Bracken County turned in a 3-8 campaign last season before this year’s big turnaround. The infusion of Griffin Appleman, a junior who transferred from Pendleton County, has taken an already talented rushing corps to the next level.
Appleman had 16 carries for 61 yards and three TDs, including the go-ahead score with 3:12 left, in the Polar Bears’ win at Paris on Friday night. His first score came as he hurled himself over his offensive linemen at the goal line as time expired in the first half.
“We had the momentum thanks to our hogs,” Appleman said of the team’s offensive front, which helped him, Nick Parker (13 carries, 136 yards) and Tad Fisher (16 carries, 93 yards) make the most of their night in Bourbon County.
The Polar Bears are making the most of this season, which has a good chance to go down as the best since Bracken’s program began in 2003. Signature wins over Harlan — their first over a ranked team — and at Paris — their first road win and second win, period, in the eight-game series — were a long time coming for this group.
Fisher, who’s rushed for 863 yards this season, believes Bracken County can win its district for the first time in school history and host a playoff game or two. That dream could have taken an early blow if the Polar Bears hadn’t staged a late comeback at Paris, where they fell 71-0 just two years ago in that winless season.
But these boys don’t scare easily.
“There’s never any doubt in our heads,” Fisher said. “We’re always staying positive about it and we’re never all brought down together.
“We’re all up. We don’t worry about the past. We just focus on what we’re doing now and that’s about it.”
Jake Johnson keeps delivering
At 6 foot, 175 pounds, Pulaski County senior Jake Johnson doesn’t cut a very imposing figure as a wide receiver on the football field — right up until the moment the ball is snapped.
The state’s all-time receptions leader made plays all over the field Friday night as the visiting Maroons overcame a 21-14 halftime deficit to win 40-21 at Henry Clay.
“The biggest thing that I’m proud of out of our team is that we didn’t get down when we got behind at halftime,” Pulaski Coach John Hines said. “We didn’t play well in the first half. They made some big plays and jumped up and got a lead on us, and we were able to come out in the second half and just play like we could play.”
Johnson had eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. The yardage unofficially moves him to fourth on the state’s all-time yardage list (4,444), past Trinity’s James Quick (4,437), whose all-time receptions mark Johnson has already eclipsed (322). Johnson sits sixth on the all-time TD reception list with 51. That’s within one of fifth place and two of fourth. The record is 69.
“It (the TD record) means a lot ... a lot of people asked me about it and (are) wanting me to get that record in the community. But in the middle of the game, I’m not really thinking about it.” Johnson said. “I’m just going out there playing my game and doing what I do best.”
Pulaski County’s Matt Hendricks, originally listed on the roster at tight end, has been settling in at quarterback since the injury to sophomore Wiley Cain in the team’s first game. And when opponents play man-to-man on the Maroons’ Mr. Football candidate, it makes things a lot easier.
“If anybody’s in man, I’m going to try to throw it to No. 2,” said Hendricks, who tossed four TDs. “I don’t think there is any corner in the state that can guard Jake.”
▪ Jalen Burbage, who figured in eight total touchdowns in Bryan Station’s 65-55 loss at Lafayette. The Station sophomore was 26-for-38 for 394 yards and six TDs, and rushed for 166 yards and two TDs on 15 carries.
Walker Wood had a big night for the winning side. Wood, a Mr. Football favorite who’s committed to the University of Kentucky, rushed for 182 yards and four TDs on 13 carries and was 19-for-29 for 245 yards and three TDs. Both quarterbacks threw two interceptions.
▪ Breece Hayes, who was 19-for-29 for 319 yards and three TDs in Casey County’s 53-14 win over Bell County. The Rebels are 6-0 and could lock up their first home playoff game since 2010 with a victory at Jackson County on Oct. 14.
▪ Taveon Hunter, who had 107 yards and a TD on just six carries in Belfry’s 35-21 win over Cabell Midland, which plays in West Virginia’s largest division.
▪ Dalton Maggard, who came down with eight receptions for 220 yards and three TDs in Collins’ 38-31 win at Franklin County.
▪ Paintsville’s Kent Phelps, who returned for the Tigers after sitting out with an injury last week at Bourbon County. He had 175 yards and four TDs on 14 carries in Paintsville’s 50-12 win over Pike County Central on Thursday.
▪ Lucas Vance, who rushed for 206 yards on 22 carries for Leslie County in its 26-8 win at Allen Central, which knocked the Rebels from the undefeated ranks.
▪ East Jessamine stopped a two-game skid and won its district opener, 30-27, over Mercer County. Aaron Fortenbury rushed for 109 yards and two TDs on 26 attempts for the Jaguars (4-3).
▪ West Jessamine (3-4) won for the second time in three weeks, defeating Marion County 57-21.
▪ Nicholas County ended a four-game home stand with a 59-8 win over Berea. The Bluejackets (7-0), who will play their final three games of the regular season on the road, have allowed the fewest points in Class A this season.
▪ Estill County (5-2) improved to 3-0 in its five-team district with a 28-22 win against Breathitt County.
▪ Pikeville’s 29-21 win over Hazard was the Panthers’ fifth straight over the Bulldogs. Pikeville (5-2) leads the all-time series 27-13-1.
▪ Gallatin County (5-2) posted its second straight shutout in a 51-0 win against Carroll County.
▪ Trinity’s 35-13 win over St. Xavier was its 11th in the last 12 meetings between Louisville’s two Catholic powerhouses. The Tigers’ last win was in 2014.
Herald-Leader reporter Jared Peck contributed to this article.