After Hazard upset Lexington Christian Academy in the Class A football playoffs last week to earn its first-ever trip to the state finals, winning quarterback Tyler Olinger, through tears of joy, said he appreciated the support the Bulldogs received "from all over Eastern Kentucky."
When it comes to cheering for high school sports teams, mountain pride isn't local. It's regional.
That's why everybody in Eastern Kentucky will be pulling for Hazard, Breathitt County and Bell County in the state football finals in Louisville this weekend.
"When it gets to this stage, we all come together," Hazard Coach Mark Dixon said. "Everybody from the mountains is for all the mountain teams."
Hazard plays 10-time state champion Beechwood in the Class A title game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium Friday at 11 a.m.
Breathitt County, which knocked off unbeaten Belfry last week, goes for its fourth title under Coach Mike Holcomb when it faces defending champ Central in Friday afternoon's 3A finals.
Bell County, which won a state crown in 1991 under Dudley Hilton, plays Bullitt East for the 4A championship Saturday afternoon.
This is the first time three mountain teams have reached the finals in the same year.
"It's a great thing," Holcomb said. "It speaks volumes about the kind of kids we have and how important football is to our communities."
Dixon, who was an assistant to Holcomb for one season at Breathitt County eight years ago, said the three teams' success shows that "the quality of football in the mountains is as good as anywhere in the state. This is an opportunity to go down to Louisville and prove that."
Bell County was on top of the world after it beat Boyle County last Friday.
But all of Bell County was rocked by tragedy the next morning when three students (twins Niki and Wesley Ingram, and Daniel Smith) and a former student (Jonathan Miracle) were killed in a car wreck on their way to a Christmas parade.
The football team was devastated by the news.
"All four of those kids were part of our cheering section, and they were in our huddle celebrating with us after we won Friday," Hilton said. "And then to turn around the next morning and lose those four kids was unbelievable.
"It's been a hard time for all of us. I haven't even been able to talk the last few days because it's so emotional."
Hilton said the team will take memories of their classmates with them to Louisville.
Bell County heads to Papa John's Stadium as the only undefeated team in the state. But Hilton said his Bobcats, along with Hazard and Breathitt County, might not get the respect they deserve because they play mostly Eastern Kentucky competition.
"People think we have a lot of easy games, but that's not the case," Hilton said. "We had to beat some real strong teams.
"There are weak teams in every part of the state, not just in the mountains. That's kind of a little slap on us."
Hilton, who also coached Bourbon County to a state title in 1997, has seen football in Eastern Kentucky flourish over the last 25 years.
"It's gotten better and better," he said. "The coaching, the players, the facilities ... everything's gotten better."
Pikeville's three consecutive state titles in the late 1980s seemed to signal a new level of competitiveness.
Bell County had its state championship in 1991, followed by Tim Couch's record-setting career at Leslie County, and Breathitt County's back-to-back titles in 1995 and '96.
Belfry, under Philip Haywood, has been an established power for a long time, highlighted by state titles in 2003 and '04, and a runner-up finish in '07.
Football facilities at many Eastern Kentucky schools have been upgraded to match the best anywhere in the state.
Artificial-turf fields dot the mountains, including at Belfry, Pikeville, Letcher Central and Shelby Valley and a brand-new one at Hazard.
"The nice facilities are exciting for the kids, and they show the support the communities have for football," Dixon said.
Breathitt County, which doesn't have artificial turf, practiced at Hazard on Monday to acclimate itself to the field at Papa John's Stadium.
Hazard practiced late on Monday so Breathitt County could get in its workout earlier that day.
"We like to help each other out," Dixon said. "We're mountain teams, and we're all pulling for each other."
"Things are tough in the mountains these days," he said. "So it's nice to have something positive happening for the communities.
"Having three teams in the finals is exciting, and it'd be even more exciting if we could bring back some state championships."