KHSAA football championship three-peat saved on senior’s interception
More from the series
2019 Kentucky high school football preview
The 2019 high school football season kicks off Friday, Aug. 23. New high school sports beat writer Jared Peck is rolling out several stories over the next two weeks in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com previewing the season around the city, region and state and highlighting the top players and games. Click below to read all of his previous stories.
Coaches voting in the Herald-Leader’s Class A preseason football survey overwhelmingly said Pikeville, last year’s runner-up, gets the nod as the No. 1 small-school team heading into 2019. The Panthers were picked No. 1 on 14 of the 18 submitted ballots.
Pikeville is the last team not named Beechwood to hoist the Class A trophy — having done so in 2015. And now, with Beechwood bumped up to Class 2A, the race is on to see who will be “the next.” Play begins Aug. 23.
Here are the preseason top-10 teams in Class A — the smallest football-playing classification under the Kentucky High School Athletic Association — as voted on by coaches in the division.
Head coach: Chris McNamee (11th season).
Last year: 11-3. Lost 21-20 in championship game to Beechwood.
Quick look: With games against Herald-Leader preseason No. 3 Paintsville, No. 4 Raceland and No. 6 Hazard, plus Class 2A-power Belfry all on the slate, the Panthers will be battle tested heading into the playoffs where they are almost certain to have to go through district-foe Hazard again if they want to get back to the championship.
Pikeville bring backs leading receiver Jackson Hensley, a Harvard commit who caught 39 passes for 829 yards and 16 TDs in 2018, but it has questions in the trenches and a sophomore QB, coach’s son Isaac McNamee. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, McNamee looks the part, but “he’s never started a high school game,” his dad said. Senior Jon Collum, a 6-foot, 205-pound linebacker led the team in tackles last year.
Everyone who’s back remembers how close they were last season, Coach McNamee said.
“That’s something that stings, and I think it drove a lot of them in the offseason as far as in the weight room. And it’s kind of something that will always be a part of us,” he said. “We want to get back, but our job is to make sure we stay focused a week at a time to get back. We can’t just do it in one big fell swoop. We’ve got to earn it every week. And we know people are gunning for us.”
Head coach: Dale Estes (seventh season).
Last year: 11-2. Lost 48-13 in quarterfinals to Beechwood.
Quick look: The Eagles are looking to make their third straight run to the round of 16 (and maybe more), having won the regionals in each of the last two years. This season brings a new playoff format where they’ll be favored to earn the 2nd District playoff crown over intra-district foes Fort Knox, Bethlehem and Louisville Holy Cross. Campbellsville brings back leading receiver Malachi Corley, a 6-foot-1 senior who caught 41 passes for 863 yards and 14 TDs who’s also a talented defensive back. Junior QB Arren Hash begins his third full season under center. Corner Blase Wheatley had six interceptions last year.
Head coach: Michael Salmons (sixth season).
Last year: 11-3. Lost 38-19 in semifinals to Pikeville.
Quick look: The Rams have “new faces with same expectations,” according to Salmons, and that means a trip deep in the playoffs where they reached the semis last year and the title game in 2017. The 2019 campaign returns an “electric” duo at wide receiver/defensive back in seniors Gunnur Lewis and Ethan Cox. Lewis caught 32 passes for 622 years and 11 TDs with five interceptions on the other side a year ago to Cox’s 20 for 300 yards and five TDs. Quarterback Jake Heighton has 1,886 yards passing with 25 TDs against four interceptions as a sophomore.
Head coach: Joe Chirico (seventh season).
Last year: 10-3. Lost 14-7 in round of 16 to Raceland.
Quick look: Paintsville hasn’t missed the round of 16 since 2013 and doesn’t figure to this year with Division I linebacker recruit Jaylyn Allen and standout cornerback John Phelps entering their senior years. Allen, a 6-1, 220-pound prospect whose brother Tyrese went to West Virginia, is being recruited by Kentucky and has a number of offers. Phelps, the team’s second leading tackler last year hits the 247Sports.com chart as a two-star recruit. Quarterback Jake Hyden led the team in passing (78-for-142 for 1,166 yards and 18 TDs) and rushing (99 rushes for 590 yards and 7 TDs) as a sophomore.
5. Newport Central Catholic
Head coach: Stephen Lickert (second season).
Last year: 5-7. Lost 21-14 in second round to DeSales.
Quick look: The five-time Class 2A champion drops into Class A this year where it should remain one of the perennial contenders. Last year’s sub-.500 campaign included losses to eventual Class A champion Beechwood and Class 2A champ Christian Academy of Louisville. Beechwood swapped classes with the Thoroughbreds and remains on their schedule. Senior QB Paul Kremer threw for 1,519 yards and 18 TDs in 2018.
Head coach: Mark Dixon (17th season).
Last year: 7-4. Lost 45-27 in second round to Williamsburg.
Quick look: The Bulldogs lost a lot of production on offense, including a three-year starter at QB, but they bring back their leading tackler in senior linebacker Reece Fletcher, who will also look to pick up his offensive production as the team’s top returning receiver (208 yards, two TDs) and second leading returning rusher (387 yards, three TDs). Trajon Campbell figures to get the bulk of the handoffs after going for 473 yards and seven TDs as a junior.
Head coach: Jerry Herron (14th season).
Last year: 9-3. Lost 57-16 in second round to Pikeville.
Quick look: With quality wins over Frankfort and Hazard in 2018, Williamsburg had its third consecutive winning season and will be looking for more behind dual-threat quarterback Dalton Ponder, who could threaten for Mr. Football honors. The 5-10 senior passed for 246 yards per game last season, second only to Lexington Catholic’s Beau Allen among returning QBs. In all, he threw for 2,954 yards and 35 TDs while also gaining 1,292 on the ground with 20 TDs on 176 rushes. Ponder will have three of his favorite targets back in senior wide receivers Caleb Rose and Devonte Powell and junior Gavon Thomas.
Head coach: Craig Foley (17th season).
Last year: 8-4. Lost 49-8 in second round to Beechwood.
Quick look: The Panthers will know what they have early with matchups against ever-tough Lynn Camp and Paris to start the season followed by a tilt with Class 5A Fairdale. Then it could be two trips through Kentucky Country Day to decide the 3rd District title. Frankfort graduated standouts at every skill position but have Jyden Graham and Tayshaun Hamilton back for their third year in the trenches to create holes for new running backs Dallan Hawkins, Azeno Williams and Parks Pressley.
9. Crittenden County
Head coach: Sean Thompson (second season).
Last year: 11-2. Lost 26-21 in the round of 16 to Campbellsville.
Quick look: The Rockets lost 14 seniors off its best team in years but will look to rekindle the magic of Thompson’s first season at the helm with junior running back Xander Tabor featured in the backfield. Tabor, listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds, was Crittenden’s second-leading rusher last season, carrying 59 times for 408 yards and seven TDs. At 6-6, 215 pounds, figure junior wide receiver Preston Turley to be a primary target.
Head coach: Brian Washington (eighth season).
Last year: 5-6. Lost 49-19 in the first round to Raceland.
Quick look: The Greyhounds look to get a big boost from a healthy Matthew Barber, a senior running back who averaged 120 yards per game as a sophomore and had two 100-plus yard games before getting injured in 2018. That spurred the development of backfield mate Jamaun Clark, who led the team in rushing and receiving as a junior and figures to be part of a potent 1-2 punch this year.
Others receiving votes
(In order of votes received)
Russellville, Kentucky Country Day, Nicholas County, Ludlow, Fulton County, Lynn Camp and Louisville Holy Cross.
Teams participating in Class A rankings: Campbellsville, Caverna, Crittenden County, Dayton, Eminence, Fairview, Fort Knox, Frankfort, Fulton City, Fulton County, Holy Cross, Kentucky Country Day, Ludlow, Newport Central Catholic, Nicholas County, Raceland, Russellville and Williamsburg.
Survey method: Every Class A coach was given the opportunity to participate in the @HLpreps annual survey, emailed to their address listed on KHSAA.org. Multiple attempts were made to contact every coach.