Elizabethtown has started its season on the road in each of Mark Brown’s four seasons at the helm. There’s a method to that madness.
“I think in the long run it does the kids some good if you do get in the playoffs and then have to go on a little trip or something,” Brown said. “It does help out quite a bit.”
The Panthers, who won at Franklin-Simpson to start their 2017 campaign, have quietly become one of Class 3A’s most formidable programs under Brown. E-town has played in back-to-back state region finals; its most recent before 2015 was in 2008.
Before going on to play in consecutive state semifinals the last two seasons, 2003 was the last time they got to the playoffs’ penultimate round. That year was the last time E-town won that late in the postseason; the Panthers lost to Belfry in overtime in the next week’s title game.
A path to the finals now almost always includes a potential meeting with Boyle County, Central or Lexington Catholic, programs oft-mentioned among the best in Class 3A. All three have played in the finals and have won championships much more recently than the Panthers, whose only title came in 1969.
Jay Becherer headlines a class of 19 seniors at E-town, the first group to play all four years under Brown. He rushed for 1,171 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Matching or passing both totals this season is likely; he had 155 yards and two TDs on only eight carries against Franklin-Simpson. He was also among the team leaders in tackles in 2016.
E-town is starting to get noticed, though. The Panthers were ranked fifth in the Herald-Leader’s preseason poll of coaches and their pulverizing of Franklin-Simpson was a head-turner across the state; it was the Wildcats’ worst regular-season loss since 2012, Doug Preston’s first season as that program’s head coach.
“We’ve got a pretty decent ranking this year and I’m glad people even think we’re that good,” Brown said. “There’s about five teams — Boyle, Lexington Catholic, Corbin, Central and Belfry — that probably have something to say about that. They’re the big boys.”
Brown meant that metaphorically, but it could be taken literally in most cases (especially with Belfry, the reigning four-time champs in the class who seemingly have an endless supply of well-fed young men). E-town doesn’t typically have an abundance of size — or depth.
“Basically, because we’re not real big physically, and we don’t have a lot of numbers, a lot of depth, that’s always gonna be an Achilles’ heel of ours,” said Brown, whose KHSAA roster lists 52 players, 22 of whom are sophomores and freshmen. Lexington Catholic has 69 players listed (27 sophomores, no freshman) and Boyle County has 79 (46 are sophomores and freshmen).
“If we could ever get to the point where we platoon and did stuff like that, and didn’t have to play everybody both ways, then we could be a lot more effective,” Brown said.
Still, this year’s squad has state-title aspirations. Based on its strong start and recent-past performance in the postseason, the Panthers should not be discounted come November — or in future seasons.