Following a 55-38 defeat at Belfry in August, Tates Creek had lost eight straight games dating to last season. A win over Paul Laurence Dunbar to open September snapped that streak, as well as a five-game skid to city opponents and nine straight losses to Class 6A foes.
Crucial to the Commodores' resurgence — on Friday night they'll host just their second playoff game since 2004 — has been quarterback Peyton Burke.
Burke, who began to take over passing duties last year before a hamstring injury ended his season early, came into his senior year healthy and eager to embrace a new spread attack that Coach Antoine Sims planned to employ.
Burke has embraced it all right, to the tune of more than 2,300 yards and 32 touchdowns, numbers that put him atop Class 6A and among the leaders statewide in those categories.
The offensive transition from year one to year two, Sims said, was smooth thanks to a senior class that quickly bought in and had no problem assuming ownership of the team. Burke personifies that leadership.
"I can honestly say he's been at this stadium every day of the week since January, just doing some type of work," Sims said of Burke. "That's his level of dedication.
"If he's not at the stadium he's at the park throwing footballs. ... He's running hills, he's lifting weights. He's got the linemen doing extra conditioning and stuff like that."
It's fitting that Burke — a grandson of the late Roy Walton, a Tates Creek icon — has the Commodores flying high. Getting to wear the maroon and white in the stadium named after his grandfather is something he cherishes.
"That's my favorite thing," he said. " ... I'm just trying to honor him every game."
But, of course, in his own way. Walton's teams were known for their strict adherence to running the football; Burke is tied for the team lead in rushing at 313 yards and four touchdowns, but his strength lies in finding a host of receivers — Jackson Beerman, Turner Gentry, Robbie Lofton and Andrew Ransdell — to create plays. They "make me look good," Burke said.
Team members wear bracelets emblazoned with Walton mantras — "Never give up," "Stay strong" — but Burke doesn't feel the burden of any extra pressure playing in his grandfather's shadow.
"He was a coach, I'm a player," he said. "I just gotta come out and do my own thing and try to make a name for myself."
The Commodores are tied for ninth in scoring in Class 6A at 32.6 points per game. They're averaging 12 more points this season than last, a fact not lost on Burke.
"Last year we barely scored any points," Burke said of a squad that reached 30 or more points just twice last season. This year they've managed "big numbers that we had no chance of putting up last year."
The only other team to hang 30-plus points on Class 3A juggernaut Belfry this season was Cabell Midland, the top-ranked team in West Virginia. Burke called that trip to Pike County the "most fun game of the season" because of the raucous fan atmosphere that couldn't compare to any he'd seen in Lexington.
"There were crazy fans yelling stuff," Burke said. "... They were asking us if we were ready, saying that we didn't really know football down here."
Tates Creek was part of the highest-scoring game in the city this year — a 70-64 loss to Henry Clay in which the Commodores accumulated 644 yards of offense.
Burke threw for 327 yards and five TDs, including a 15-yard score to Curtis Zambrano with nine seconds left, in that one. He rushed for 76 yards and a score.
"It was fun," Burke said of that mid-September contest. "... You just don't expect to come into a game and think you're gonna score 64 points and the other team 70. That's just not what you're used to seeing in football."
Eyes on another streak
Tates Creek will look to end another streak when it hosts Bryan Station for the second time this season — only this game will send someone home until August.
The Commodores have dropped five straight games to the Defenders dating to 2011.
The last time the two met in the playoffs? It was 1999, a 55-16 Bryan Station win in the state semifinals of what was then Class 4A.
"You've just gotta come out thinking you can win," Burke said. "Can't make any mistakes and just play how you practice. Get the job done."