When he saw his quarterback release the pass, Reese Smith feared the worst.
“I thought it was an interception,” he said.
Smith’s Boyle County Rebels were leading Ballard 28-21 with less than three minutes left in the game and they were trying to salt away a major win to open the season. Reed Lanter saw Smith get separation on a vertical route and let it fly, but his throw looked like it was headed for the safety.
Smith stretched out and plucked the pass out of the air in front of the hands of his defender, then raced 52 yards to the end zone, sealing a 35-21 Boyle County win in the Fort Harrod Bowl at Mercer County on Saturday.
“Reed threw that pass and I was thinking ‘oh, no.’ But I even kind of surprised myself,” Smith said. “I just reached out and grabbed it and it was off to the races after that.”
It was the last of several big plays for the junior, who also plays safety.
With the Rebels up 21-14 and Ballard driving in Boyle County territory, Smith came up with a diving interception. He then hauled in a 32-yard reception that set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from Lanter to Grant Hotchkiss that put the Rebels ahead 28-14 heading into halftime.
“Reese is a great player and great players make big plays in big games,” Boyle County Coach Chuck Smith said. “In every key situation out there tonight he came up with a play, and that’s what the great ones do.”
Reese Smith, whose college scholarship offers include Cincinnati and Troy and is being recruited by several other Division I schools, said the defending Class 3A champion Rebels had been itching to test themselves against Ballard since this year’s schedule was released.
The Bruins opened the season ranked No. 8 in Class 6A in the Herald-Leader’s poll of state coaches and have several players with Division I offers. Linebacker Jared Casey has offers from Kentucky and Louisville. UK has also offered running back Markeice Warner and defensive back Josh Minkins.
“This was a big-time win,” Reese Smith said. “We circled this long before the season began and knew it was gonna be a huge test for us. They’re a top team in (Class) 6A so we knew we had to bring our ‘A’ game for sure, and we did.”
Smith wasn’t the only Rebel who looked to be in midseason form in week one. Junior running back Landen Bartleson, who has scholarship offers from Louisville, Purdue and Colorado among others, scored three first-half touchdowns, including a 73-yarder that came one play after a diving interception by Isaac Hardwick and gave Boyle a 14-7 lead.
“It feels great to open up with this kind of win,” Bartleson said. “I don’t feel like we played our best, but we came out and executed. We just love the competition and we like to come out and get at it. When we need points we go get points and when we need to get the offense off the field our defense gets it done.”
The Rebels’ defense did just that. In the first half Boyle County forced five turnovers. In the second half the Rebels held the Bruins scoreless and forced three straight three-and-outs to protect a one-possession lead before Smith’s long TD finally sealed the win.
“We got aggressive on defense and it worked out for us. But we’ve got to do a better job of stopping the run and play better in the trenches. If we’re gonna be a champion we’ve got to be able to line up and take it to people,” Chuck Smith said. “But I was really pleased with how the guys dug down and found a way to win.”