High School Sports

Will last year’s Kentucky football champions repeat in 2018? Let’s take a look.

Boyle County celebrated after winning the Class 3A state championship at Kroger Field in Lexington last December. Boyle County beat Corbin 40-21.
Boyle County celebrated after winning the Class 3A state championship at Kroger Field in Lexington last December. Boyle County beat Corbin 40-21. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Kentucky high school football, year in and year out, is reasonably predictable: a few surprise challengers, like Logan County last year in Class 4A, rise from time to time, but typically there are four to five teams in a given season that are truly capable of winning a championship.

And, frequently, the teams that won the year before find themselves back in the title bout the next season. Four of the six champions in 2017 were making at least their second straight appearance in the finals, and every champ had won at least one state title prior to winning last year.

All six of last year’s champions are expected to compete for a title again. Here’s the outlook for them all, with my thoughts on their ability to repeat.

Beechwood, Class A

Profile: Beechwood has played in three consecutive Class A championship games, winning the last two to raise its total number of titles to 13 (the third-most in the state). The Tigers return nine starters from last year’s title unit, most of them two-way standouts. Brayden Burch, the quarterback of those two championship clubs, graduated, leaving the quarterback position in doubt, but the Tigers picked up two significant transfers in Cameron Hergott (a 6-1 sophomore from Highlands) and Jensen Linder (a 6-1 junior from Cooper). Returning junior Chris Layton (the tallest at 6-2) was 3-for-4 and had one TD completion in eight games of varsity action.

Biggest threats: Is there one? The Tigers were the only unanimous preseason No. 1 selection among all six classes, and have left little room for doubt that theirs is the program to topple in 2018. Raceland, whom Beechwood defeated in last year’s finals, and Pikeville, the last team to beat the Tigers in the finals, tied for second place in the rankings and are consistent challengers out of the east. Hazard and Paintsville pose threats, too. It should be one of that foursome to match up opposite the Tigers in December’s finals. Can any of them prevent a three-peat?

Repeatability: 100 percent. Beechwood will win one more small-school championship before jumping up to Class 2A in 2019.

Danville, Class 2A

Profile: The Admirals returned to the throne after a 14-year absence, and they’re going to be in the mix again this season. They’ll try to reach their third straight title game after losing Mr. Football winner D’mauriae VanCleave and a host of other significant weapons. Leading tackler Darrian Bell, a junior, will soften the blow a bit on defense, and Zach Thornton, a senior quarterback, is a welcome returnee as the offense looks to reload.

Biggest threats: Mayfield was ranked as the No. 1 preseason team by coaches across the state with the Admirals coming in second. The Cardinals could potentially run into two preseason top 10 teams — No. 5 Glasgow, whom it hasn’t played recently, and No. 8 Owensboro Catholic, a team whose season it convincingly ended the last three years — on its way to a finals trip, which would be its seventh in the last eight seasons. Danville’s postseason slate probably would include No. 6 Lexington Christian, which lost a lot of talent to graduation and transfers, and whichever private school emerges from the trio of Christian Academy of Louisville, DeSales and Newport Central Catholic in the opposite region.

Repeatability: 33 percent. I think Danville plays either CAL or DeSales for a finals berth, but none match Mayfield’s firepower at Kroger Field this season.

Boyle County, Class 3A

Profile: The larger of Titletown’s football juggernauts also re-ascended to the winner’s circle after some time away and is favored by Class 3A coaches to do so again. They’re not misguided: the Rebels return numerous starters who piled up ridiculous stats as sophomores, meaning there’s a good chance Boyle County finds itself in the position of “preseason favorite” again in 2019.

Biggest threats: Belfry is always looming, and if the No. 2 team in the state meets Boyle County it would be in the region finals — talk about a game with big stakes! That winner would then have to travel to, in all likelihood, No. 4 Corbin, whom the Rebels defeated in last year’s title game. No. 3 Central, a five-time champion, is the favorite to come out of the west. District cohort Lexington Catholic, ranked fifth in the preseason, couldn’t hang with the Rebels last year but it’s a rivalry for a reason; the Knights could throw a wrench into this whole thing.

Repeatability: 70 percent. The path to a championship could be a little more loaded than last year, but Boyle County still gets my vote of confidence.

Franklin-Simpson, Class 4A

Profile: Franklin-Simpson returned the favor to Johnson Central, handing it a big finals loss after the Golden Eagles gave the Wildcats one in the preceding finals. The program’s resilience was impressive. It started 2-3 in 2017 but finished with 10 straight wins, only one of them within a single-digit margin. Franklin-Simpson’s top two rushers, Tre Bass and Carlos McKinney, return along with lineman Jack Randolph, a Louisville commit.

Biggest threats: Like Danville, the Wildcats were picked second in the preseason behind the team they defeated in last year’s finals. Johnson Central played last season without Joe Jackson, a 2,000-yard rusher as a sophomore, and his presence should make a big difference this season. The Golden Eagles’ path will probably again include a region matchup with No. 5 Ashland Blazer before a semifinals date with either No. 3 Wayne County or No. 4 Collins, either of whom could end Johnson Central’s streak of title-game appearances (at three entering 2018). No. 7 Hopkinsville, against whom Franklin-Simpson needed a 20-point turnaround in the playoffs last year, and No. 9 Mercer County, would be the Wildcats’ toughest likely challengers.

Repeatability: 50 percent. My guess is we get Franklin-Simpson versus Johnson Central, round three. That rubber match is a coin flip.

Covington Catholic, Class 5A

Profile: CovCath last year put together its most dominating season, going undefeated for the first time and leaving in doubt none of its games against Kentucky competition — the Colonels put running clocks into effect in all of them. Leading rusher Casey McGinness, who scored 22 TDs and went for more than 1,400 yards, is a senior. It’ll miss Mr. Football finalist AJ Mayer, who graduated, but his brother Michael, a junior who’s committed to Notre Dame, should ease the pain.

Biggest threats: Bowling Green, ranked second behind CovCath in the preseason, fell back from the pack a little bit last year after reaching five of the previous six finals. Sharing a district with No. 3 South Warren makes life more difficult and, for as long as that’s the case, one of the best teams in the state will annually be eliminated before the state semifinals. The good news for the winner is, unlike last season, it wouldn’t be able to meet CovCath until the finals. The Colonels’ road to a repeat could include a number of interesting foes, among them No. 4 Madison Southern (their finals opponent last year) and No. 5 Highlands (a prolific program trying to get back on the uptick). No. 7 Southwestern, No. 8 Harlan County and No. 10 Pulaski County all have a chance at a state semifinals meeting.

Repeatability: 50 percent. While CovCath probably won’t be as strong as last year, its path to a finals berth is arguably easier this season, helping its chances. Can it take down the Bowling Green-South Warren winner if it makes it back to Lexington? Let’s flip a coin again.

Trinity, Class 6A

Profile: Do the Shamrocks needs an introduction? Chances are if you know anything about Kentucky high school football, you know Trinity is synonymous with excellence. A nationally renowned program that’s won more titles than any team in the state (25), Trinity brings a 30-game win streak into 2018 and hopes to win its third straight championship (and 14th this century). The Shamrocks’ junior-varsity team would win at least two playoff games; that’s the level of depth other teams are dealing with when they take the field against Trinity.

Biggest threats: The bubonic plague? In all seriousness, it’ll be fascinating to see what Kevin Wallace — who built Bowling Green into one of the state’s premier programs, regardless of class — can do as the first-year head coach at St. Xavier, the coaches’ No. 2 team in the preseason. The Tigers put up a decent fight against Trinity in last year’s finals; it’d be an incredible shock if they or No. 4 Male don’t meet Trinity in the state semifinals. Scott County, ranked third in the preseason, has seen its season end at the hands of a finals participant each of the past three seasons. The Cardinals this year would be favored until the finals, with No. 5 Simon Kenton and No. 6 Frederick Douglass presenting the most challenging roadblocks (it could meet only one of those teams, and in the region finals).

Repeatability: 99 percent. There are a few Ferraris among Kentucky’s Class 6A programs; the rub is that Trinity is a Lamborghini. Scott County would be the most promising challenger in the finals if it plays a perfect game and the Shamrocks are shaky.