LOUISVILLE — Putting the finishing touches on a perfect season wasn't easy, but Bell County dodged a late bullet and held on for a 15-13 victory over Bullitt East in the Class 4A football finals Saturday afternoon.
"We're just glad to get out of here. Somebody's watching over us," a relieved Bell County Coach Dudley Hilton said after getting hugs from his wife and daughters.
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Bell County looked like it had its second state title wrapped up when it led 15-7, and Bullitt East had the ball on its 26 with only 93 seconds left.
Bell County fans in the crowd of 6,103 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium were ready to party. But their celebration was delayed by Bullitt East's fantastic finish.
The Chargers stayed alive when Zach McCarthy caught a deflected pass at the Bell County 1-yard line with 48 seconds left.
"It wasn't a shocker; Zach does things like that all the time," Bullitt East Coach Doug Preston said.
Bell County's defense stymied three straight plays before McCarthy bulled into the end zone to make it 15-13 with 10 seconds left.
But Bullitt East couldn't finish the comeback. Matt Bowles' two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, and Bell County survived to cap the first undefeated season in school history.
This was the third state title for Hilton, who also guided Bell County to a championship in 1991, and Bourbon County to the top in 1997.
"This was the hardest," Hilton said. "Those darned old ratings kill you by making you the favorite.
"I've always been here before as the underdog. This year we were supposed to win, and that's the hardest because everybody's already wanting ring sizes and everything."
This title had to be the sweetest for Hilton, too, because his son, sophomore John Dudley Hilton, was named the game's MVP after catching a TD pass and making an interception in the closing minutes.
Bell County's defense was pretty valuable, too. Led by Hilton, Keith Lowe, Shawnta Zachery and Cody Marcum. it allowed Bullitt East only 72 yards between its first and last possessions.
"Our defense played great in the second half," Coach Hilton said after his team rallied from a 7-0 halftime deficit.
Bell County tied it early in the second half on Spencer Greer's 4-yard run.
The Bobcats' defense got the lead on the last play of the third quarter when Lowe tackled Bullitt East tight end Garrett Foss in the end zone to make it 9-7.
"Coach told me all week they had trick plays, and that was one of them, and I was looking for it," Lowe said.
Bell County was clinging to its two-point lead when it drove to the Chargers' 9 with four minutes left in the game.
On fourth-and-goal, Hilton decided to forego a field goal and try for a TD.
Afterward he said it wasn't a gamble because Bullitt East would've been backed up against the goal line.
It didn't matter. Bell County got the TD when Zachery tossed a TD pass to John Dudley Hilton.
John Dudley wasn't surprised by his dad's gutsy call.
"I knew he'd put trust in me," he said. "We had that play drawn up since Monday, and it worked great."
Watching his son accept the MVP trophy, Hilton said, "My wife and two daughters taught him well. It couldn't happen to a better boy."
The Bobcats' offense got just enough done. Dominic Carton, Spencer Greer and Justin Goodin combined for 181 yards rushing. Zachery also threw for 64 yards.
McCarthy led Bullitt East, rushing for 79 yards and two scores, and catching two passes for 56 yards.
"They made big plays when they had to, and we made big plays when we had to," Hilton said. "Somehow or another, we held on."