Raceland is a small town in Greenup County that, in the words of Michael Salmons, "has a railroad, a four-way red light and a football team. That's about it."
For now, that's enough.
Raceland's football team, under the direction of Salmons, plays Williamsburg in the Class A semifinals Friday night. After winning their first-ever region title last year, the Rams are hosting a semifinal game for the first time in school history.
"The people here take a lot of pride in the football team, so this is a big deal," said Salmons, who's a Ram at heart. He was a star lineman at Raceland in the late 1990s. He also played baseball and basketball for the Rams. After serving as offensive coordinator the last few seasons, he took over as coach when T.J. Maynard left for his alma mater, Russell, just two miles down the road from Raceland.
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Salmons deflects any credit for guiding Raceland to within one game of the state finals. "Good kids make good coaches," he said. "And we've got some good kids."
Quarterback Josh Young has thrown for 1,677 yards and 23 touchdowns. Kane Snyder has run for 974 yards and 10 TDs. Connor Messer has 740 yards and 15 TDs rushing and receiving. "Conner's the guy who's gotta make plays," Salmons said. "He's just a super athlete." Messer won the 110 hurdles, high jump and pole vault in the state track championships last spring. Messer and Young are among the leaders on defense, too, along with Mav Dixon, Carson Christian and Seth Holbrook.
Williamsburg beat Raceland 34-7 in last year's semifinals, and Salmons thinks the Yellow Jackets are just as explosive this year. "We've got to make them work to score instead of them hitting home runs," he said.
If Raceland can beat Williamsburg and get to the state finals, the small town in Greenup County will have another big dream come true. "This is for all the people who've come before us," Salmons said. "You don't just wake up one day and get to the state semifinals."
■ Shelby Valley is considered a basketball school because its boys' team has been to the Sweet Sixteen seven times in the last 12 years and won a state title in 2010, and its girls' team is two-time defending 15th Region champion. Football has never created much of a buzz. Until now. First-year coach Eric Ratliff has the Wildcats in the 2A semifinals for the first time in school history. They host Newport Central Catholic Friday night. So perennial power Belfry, which hosts Russell in the 3A semifinals Friday night, is sharing the spotlight in Pike County this Thanksgiving holiday. "Belfry makes this annual run, but this is all new to us," Ratliff said. "Our county roots for winners, so they've kind of adopted us a little bit this year."
Shelby Valley, with a school-record 11 wins, has a dynamic-duo running attack. Chandler Rowe has 1,805 yards and 26 TDs. Kasey Tackett has 1,626 yards and 17 TDs. The Wildcats' offensive line is anchored by 280-pound tackle Austin Robinson and 6-2, 225-pound tight end Andrew Newsome.
Ratliff thinks the turning point in Shelby Valley's season was a 26-18 loss to district rival Prestonsbug in early October. "That's when we realized we could be a pretty good team. That's when the lightbulb came on. That loss really propelled us." The Wildcats have won six games in a row since then.
■ Philip Haywood, the winningest coach in state history with 387 victories, has Belfry in the semifinals for the 11th time in 12 years. The Pirates host Russell Friday night looking to punch their ticket for a fifth consecutive trip to Bowling Green for the state finals.
■ Raceland's Michael Salmons and Shelby Valley's Eric Ratliff are two of seven first-year coaches who have their teams in the state semifinals. The others are Keith Hodge of Murray, T.J. Maynard of Russell, Mark Perry of Lexington Catholic, Brandon Smith of South Warren and Brian Weinrich of Highlands.
■ Central rallied from a 26-0 deficit to beat Corbin 36-33. The Yellow Jackets' winning TD was set up by a bizarre play. Central's Myron Norfleet threw deep to Clavon Armstrong and the ball glanced off his hands, and he inadvertently kicked it as he went down. Teammate Stevon Beason, trailing the play, grabbed the ball in mid-air and ran it to the Corbin 15. The Redhounds were called for a face-mask penalty, moving the ball half the distance to the goal. Norfleet then hit Kambrin Brown with a TD pass with no time left on the clock. Central plays host to unbeaten South Warren in the 3A semifinals Friday night.
■ Graves County beat Bowling Green 7-0 last week, ending the Purples' three-year reign as 5A champs and their 53-game winning streak against in-state teams. Bowling Green was shut out for the first time in 77 games, dating back to 2009 when it lost to Trinity 9-0.
■ Joey Couch, whose son Braxton is a standout senior safety for Lexington Catholic, can relate to the Knights' trip to Northern Kentucky for a semifinal showdown with Highlands on Friday night. Joey Couch was a standout sophomore fullback/linebacker for Paintsville in 1985 when the Tigers made a trip to Northern Kentucky for a semifinal showdown with Beechwood. "I'll never forget how cold it was up there that night," Couch said. "It was a sloppy field and freezing cold." Couch scored the go-ahead TD in Paintsville's 19-14 victory. The Tigers, who were coached by the legendary Walter Brugh, were favored in the state finals the next week against Crittenden County. But Paintsville lost 14-6, with Couch getting the Tigers' only TD. "That was a heartbreak," Couch said. "Something you never get over." Paintsville didn't make the playoffs in Couch's junior and senior years. (Those were the days when football teams had to earn a spot in the playoffs). Couch went on to play football at UK, but not winning that state title still gnaws at him.
"That's why I'd love it if Braxton could take it one step further than I did," Couch said. "If Catholic plays like its capable against Highlands and gets to the finals and finishes the deal, that'd be great. That's been an empty spot for me for years."
Joey Couch was 6-3, 220 pounds in high school. Braxton is 5-11, 170, but he packs a punch. "He's a hard-nosed guy," his dad said. "He just really loves the game and is passionate about it."
■ Cooper Coach Randy Borchers said his offense usually runs 60 percent and passes 40 percent, but those numbers were skewed in the Jaguars' 61-14 rout of Anderson County last week. Cooper ran the ball on 48 of 52 plays and gained 468 yards on the ground. "We feel like once you get to the playoffs, the way the weather is sometimes, you need to be able to run the ball," Borchers said. "It was working for us, so we stuck with it." Torey Cordell led the rushing assault, carrying 31 times for 351 yards and four TDs. (Dvontae Bradley set the school record by running for 410 yards against Conner a few years ago.) Cooper travels to Pulaski County for Friday night's 5A semifinals.
■ Caldwell County quarterback Elijah Sindelar tore his ACL in last week's playoff game against Murray. Caldwell County led 14-0 when Sindelar was hurt at the end of the first quarter, but wound up losing 47-28. Caldwell County Coach David Barnes said Sindelar was injured when he was hit as he crossed the goal on a TD run. "It wasn't a bad hit, not even a hit to the knee, but his knee gave out," Barnes said. "It was hard to swallow. We were playing so well. I guess it just wasn't meant to be." Sindelar, who has commited to Purdue, finished his career with a state-record 144 TD passes. He also set a state record by throwing a TD pass in 41 consecutive games. His 12,637 passing yards are second most in state history, behind Zach Lewis of Clay County, who had 13,642.
Sindelar will have knee sugery in a couple weeks. He'll have company during his rehab. His dad, Scott, had knee replacement surgery two weeks ago.
■ Former Lexington Christian basketball star Taylor Barnette is off to a strong start at Belmont. Barnette played at Virginia as a freshman and averaged 2.6 points and 9.5 minutes a game. He transferred to Belmont in 2013 and sat out last season. In five games as a starter at Belmont this year, the sophomore lefthander is averaging 14.6 points and has made 18 of 33 three-pointers.
■ John Mingus has stepped down as boys' basketball coach at DeSales to take a public school teaching position. Mingus led the Colts to two runner-up finishes in the All "A" Classic in five seasons. Tom Crews, an assistant at DeSales last season, will take over as head coach, a position he held from 1999-2005. Crews coached Male from 2006-11.
■ Montana State Coach Brian Fish, whose team lost to Kentucky 86-28 last week, was a winner when he played in Rupp Arena 30 years ago. Fish was a high school standout in Seymour, Ind., and played on a Kentucky-Indiana all-star team that beat a group of U.S. all-stars 119-101 in Rupp Arena in April, 1984. Fish had three points and six steals. The Kentucky-Indiana all-stars were led by Henry Clay's Steve Miller (19 points, 11 rebounds). The U.S. team featured UK signees Richard Madison (15 points, eight rebounds), Rob Lock (10 points, five rebounds, four blocks) and Todd Ziegler (16 points, 10 rebounds).