State championship football teams aren't built in one season. They're not one-hit wonders. Ninety-nine percent of the time they're the product of a program that has paid its dues with pluck and perseverance.
Like Pulaski County.
The Maroons won their first state title last week by beating Graves County 14-7 in the rain-soaked Russell Athletic/KHSAA Class 5A finals in Bowling Green.
Pulaski County Coach Johnny Hines appreciated the team's accomplishment more than anybody because he got in on the ground floor almost 20 years ago when the Maroons were, in his words, "the worst football team in the state."
Hines played high school football at Somerset under John Cain and was on the Briar Jumpers' state runner-up team in 1978. Cain had three other Somerset teams that reached the finals, only to lose. In 1995, he left the Jumpers for a new challenge at Pulaski County, which was on a 23-game losing streak when he took over. One of Cain's first moves was to bring Hines, who was then coaching at Barren County, back home to join his staff.
They quickly got Pulaski County's program back to respectability, and after four years, Cain got out of coaching and Hines took the reins.
The Maroons made steady progress toward the top. They won 11 games in 2003, reached the 5A semifinals in 2009 before losing to Highlands, and got to the finals last year before falling to powerhouse Bowling Green.
This year, with a talented roster led by quarterback Riley Hall, receivers Jake Johnson and George Gregory, and linebacker Mason Helton, Pulaski County won the state title.
"In my opinion, Johnny Hines knows as much about the West Coast offense as anybody in the state of Kentucky," Cain said. "And he's as strong a person as he is a coach. The kids are wild about him. This couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
Cain said he and Hines talk football regularly, especially before big games. None were bigger than last week's state finals, and moments after Pulaski County won, Hines remembered his friend and mentor. "Coach John Cain was here four times and never got to win one," Hines said. "I hope he can feel a part of this because he got this program started back in '95."
■ After terrible weather (remember the ice storm?) kept the crowds down at the 2013 state finals, attendance bounced back this year. Almost 42,000 fans watched the six title games at WKU's L.T. Smith Stadium last weekend. That was a big increase from the 24,188 total attendance in 2013, but less than the 46,738 in 2012.
■ Belfry beat Central for its fourth state title since 2003, and once again the Pirates did it the old-fashioned way: by running the football. They rushed for 352 yards against Central, and attempted only one pass, an incompletion. In its four title game victories, Belfry has rushed for 1,432 yards to its opponents' 148. Belfry is 3-for-11 passing for 14 yards while its opponents are 68-for-136 for 990 yards. Pirates Coach Philip Haywood has 389 career wins, and with most of his starters returning, he'll be a good bet to reach 400 victories in 2015.
■ When Owensboro led Highlands 42-21 at halftime of the Class 4A finals, it prompted an obvious question in the press box: what was the highest-scoring title game in history? Trinity's 59-56 win over Male in 2002. Highlands wound up winning 49-42, not even close to the record. In the 2002 finals, Trinity led Male 26-14 at halftime. The teams combined for an astonishing 11 TDs and 75 points in the second half.
■ Highlands and Trinity continue to stockpile titles, each with 23 now. They've accelerated their championship haul this century, combining for 20 championships since 2000.
■ Pulaski County sophomore Jake Johnson had 82 catches for 1,295 yards and 11 TDs this year. He had 89 catches for 1,012 yards and 12 TDs last season. If Johnson keeps snagging passes at that pace over the next two years, he'll shatter the state record for career receptions of 280 set by Trinity's James Quick in 2012.
■ Graves County star Corey Crider, who rushed for 2,699 yards and 32 TDs in leading the Eagles to the state finals, has committed to Southern Illinois.
■ The Kentucky High School Football Coaches Association's players of the year: Russellville's Tacorian Darden (Class A), Caldwell County's Elijah Sindelar (2A), Estill County's Trevor Jones (3A), North Oldham's Arien Beasley (4A), Madison Southern's Damien Harris (5A), Male's Davis Mattingly (6A). Coaches of the year: Pikeville's Chris McNamee (A), Caldwell County's David Barnes (2A), Estill County's Mike Jones (3A), Franklin-Simpson's Doug Preston (4A), Iroquois' Preston King (5A), Central Hardin's Tim Mattingly (6A).
■ Four different quarterbacks have led Highlands to the state finals four years in a row (and won three championships). Their statistics are comparable: Patrick Towles in 2011: 4,409 yards, 57 TDs passing and running; Donovan McCoy in 2012: 3,913 yards, 55 TDs passing and running; Drew Houliston in 2013: 3,887 yards, 54 TDs passing and running; Beau Hoge in 2014: 4,328 yards, 61 TDs passing and running.
■ Highlands receiver Alex Veneman had 96 catches this season, tying him for fifth-most in state history. Marque Northington of Male set the record with 108 receptions last year. Veneman had 1,595 receiving yards and 22 TDs this season.
■ Mayfield, which won its third consecutive Class A title last week, moves up to 2A next year. No big deal. Five of the Cardinals' 11 state titles have been in 2A.
■ Damien Harris of Madison Southern has won the Paul Hornung Award, given by the Louisville Quarterback Club to the top high school player in the state. Harris, rated the top running back in the nation, rushed for 1,474 yards and 23 TDs in seven games this season. He missed four games with a knee injury. Harris will receive the award at a banquet at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville on Wednesday. Harris will announce his college choice on Jan. 9. He is expected to choose from among Alabama, UK and Ohio State.
■ Antoine Sims, who served as interim football coach at Tates Creek this season, has had the "interim" tag removed from his title. He's now the Commodores' full-fledged coach. "I'm very pleased and very humbled with this opportunity," he said. "It's one of those dreams that's come true." The Commodores struggled to a 3-8 record this fall, but Sims thinks "the right things are in place for us to be more successful next year. It's going to take a lot of hard work, and a lot of time together as coaches and a team."
■ North Laurel sophomore Peyton Broughton is averaging 34 points through four games. The 6-foot-4 guard had a career high 47 in a 73-71 victory over Madison Southern on Tuesday night. He had 39 in a loss to Apollo last week. Broughton already has scholarship offers from WKU and Samford. His 47 points were three shy of the school record set by Nathan Allen against Wayne County in the 12th Region Tournament in 2001.
■ Defending boys' basketball champ Covington Catholic plays at preseason No. 1 Trinity on Friday night. No. 12 CovCath has the longest boys' winning streak in the state, a modest nine victories in a row. The Colonels lost in the district finals last season before winning seven straight on their way to the Sweet Sixteen title. They're 2-0 this season.
■ Defending girls' basketball champ Butler is 3-0, stretching its overall winning streak to 23 in a row. The No. 2 Bearettes play No. 5 Manual on Tuesday.
■ Paris beat Montgomery County 54-51 in boys' basketball, ending a 15-year, 26-game losing streak to the Indians. Paris junior Koebe Garrard scored his 1,000th point in that game.
■ Jenkins junior Whitney Creech, who has led the state in scoring the past two seasons, had 34 points in a loss to Knott County Central on Tuesday night, giving her 3,011 in her career. She's on track to becoming the third girl in state history to reach 4,000 points. Jaime Walz of Highlands had 4,948, and Geri Grigsby of McDowell had 4,385. Creech is averaging 37 points through four games this season.
■ Before Paintsville played Ashland Blazer in boys' basketball Tuesday night, Coach Bill Mike Runyon told people it was the first time the teams had played since the Tigers beat the Tomcats in the 1996 state championship game. That led to a flurry of tweets announcing that as fact. Runyon later recalled that Paintsville also played (and beat) Ashland during the 1999 regular season. Still, it had been 15 years since the tradition-rich programs had met when Paintsville beat the Tomcats 67-45 Tuesday night. Runyon is in his 29th season as coach at Paintsville. He's won 561 games, making him the seventh-winningest active boys' coach in the state.
■ Bryan Station beat Henry Clay 72-62 in boys' hoops Tuesday night, seven weeks after Henry Clay beat the Defenders 70-63 in football.
■ Anderson County senior Austin Cummins hit six three-pointers and had a school-record 45 points in a win over East Jessamine. He eclipsed the old mark of 42 points set by Jonathan Beasley in 1995. Anderson County's Kaci Currens also set a school record last week by hitting nine threes on her way to 34 points in a win over Garrard County. Makenzie Cann had the old record of eight threes in 2012.
■ Bath County junior star Sarah Price, who has committed to WKU, suffered a bad ankle sprain in a pre-season scrimmage against Madison Central and has yet to play this season. Coach Troy Thomas hopes Price is back in the lineup within the next week or two. The 6-2 Price averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds last season.