After 26 years, Pikeville ended its championship drought with a come-from-behind performance against Beechwood that was a bit closer than the 42-28 final score indicated in the Class A Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl.
In fact, Pikeville (13-2) trailed in the third quarter after leading 14-0 in the first half. Momentum had swung the Tigers’ way with Brett Slusher scoring his third TD to put Beechwood ahead 21-14.
That shook the Panthers from their slumber. After giving up that go-ahead score, Wyatt Battaile answered with a 67-yard completion to Blake Charles to knot things at 21-all entering the fourth quarter. That touchdown reversed the momentum, and the points came from an unlikely source.
“We always tell Blake, you go in and run for the hard yards and you’re gonna be a blocking back,” Panthers Coach Chris McNamee said. “We’re not gonna throw to ya. And then here he gets the ball and outruns everybody.”
It was all Panthers after that big blast. They scored 21 straight before yielding a late TD to claim their fourth state title in seven appearances..
Daric Pugh put Pikeville ahead for good on a 54-yard run soon after the Panthers defense forced a third three-and-out by Beechwood. Charles added another TD on Pikeville’s next possession, after Beechwood’s prior drive stalled at the Panthers’ 36-yard line on a failed fourth-and-10 pass. Pugh added the dagger on Pikeville’s penultimate drive to give it a 42-21 lead with 3:02 to play and Beechwood without a timeout.
The Panthers tasted glory for the first time since 1989. They fell in their most recent championship appearance — 1991 — to Beechwood (34-6), making Thursday’s win a fitting way for Pikeville to finish its year, McNamee said.
“It’s unreal,” McNamee said. “ ... (Beechwood) Coach (Noel) Rash does a great job. It means so much to our kids.”
The roller-coaster performance was sort of how the season had gone for his team, McNamee said. The Panthers dropped two games in September but ended the year on a 10-game win streak in which they never gave up more than 28 points.
“We started off pretty hot, faced a little adversity and were able to dig deep there and find a way to win,” said McNamee.
Pikeville bellcow Daric Pugh, who came into the game with 1,826 yards and 33 TDs, came out of his senior finale with 239 rushing yards to easily lead all rushers in the game.
Wyatt Battaile finished with three TD passes to three different players — Blake Charles, Cody Charles and Chatlin Jarrell.
Blake Charles led the Panthers with 10 tackles on defense.
After going three and out on its first possession, Pikeville gutted out yardage for most of the first quarter thanks to a combination of Daric Pugh on the ground and timely connections between their and his receivers. The Panthers got into the scoring column first on such a connection between Battaile and Jarrell for 18 yards. Pikeville added another score later in the first half when Battaile hit Cody Charles for a 25-yarder.
Pikeville's defensive line dictated much of the first half and held the Tigers to 38 yards rushing. Beechwood came away with points after putting together a strong drive on their final possession of the half, capped by Kyle Fieger's 4-yard TD throw to Brett Slusher.
But a defense that was quick to the ball for much of the first half got flustered as it gave up a half-ending TD and a game-tying drive to open the second half.
“I think our guys were a little bit frustrated,” McNamee said. “We got ’em over and settled down a bit. I’m just tickled to death for these guys.”
Beechwood fell to 11-5 in championship performances. This was their first appearance since 2008. Two-way star Brett Slusher finished with three TDs, two on the ground and one through the air, and five tackles on defense. He had 110 kick return yards.
Kyle Fieger went 21-for-32 with two TDs and an interception for the Tigers (13-2).