Class A State Semifinal
Hazard (9-3) at Fairview (13-0)
Kickoff: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Hazard won 20-0 (1989)
Series: Hazard leads 2-1
Radio: WLGC 105.7-FM (pregame starts at 6)
It’s only fitting for Fairview’s run to continue on to Bowling Green, it has to get through the defending Class A state champion.
Westwood will host its first state semifinal game when Hazard travels to Fairview on Friday for a chance to play for the state championship.
And while all eyes are on Fairview and and coach Nathan McPeek, whose had more media obligations than usual recently, it’s all about sticking to business.
“There has been a buzz all week in the community,” McPeek said. “But we have to ignore the buzz and focus on our day-to-day operation. But this is special for Westwood, for Fairview and for Ashland in general. Plus, this is great for our program.”
Sticking to business won’t be difficult for the Eagles because Hazard comes in, not only as the defending state champ, but also on an eight-game winning streak.
After losing a lot of players from last year, and taking losses from three playoff teams whose combined record is 29-9, Hazard coach Mark Dixon said his team is finally hitting its stride.
“We’re all getting better,” Dixon said. “We were replacing a lot of guys and we went through the hardest part of the schedule early. But the kids never quit, and we’ve been within a touchdown of those three games we’ve lost.”
Last week was no easier. In Hazard’s region final win over Williamsburg, it needed a touchdown from running back Jordan Olinger in the closing minutes.
Dixon said with all his team’s big-play fourth-quarter experience, his team will be ready if Friday’s game comes down to the last possession.
“I have a feeling it’s going to come down to who’ll be ready in the fourth quarter,” Dixon said. “Whoever wins this game is going to have to win it in the fourth quarter.”
The Bulldogs have been very balanced this year, tallying 2,541 rushing yards and 2,333 passing yards.
Leading the way is quarterback Evan Whitaker, who has 2,113 yards passing with 16 touchdowns through the air and 350 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Sophomore Brandon Jones is the team’s leading rusher with 607 yards and eight touchdowns, followed by senior Nathan Higgins with 515 yards and eight touchdowns.
But what McPeek has his eye on is the Hazard defense, which has allowed only 17.5 points per game.
“They’re defending state champions for a reason,” McPeek said. “They have some really good players. The quarterback is big and has good feet and great hands. But more importantly this is probably the best defense we have played all year.
“They’re fast and they get to the ball, and the linebackers really read well. We have to block to the end of the whistle if we want to gain yards.”
Dixon said his team could have problems because they’re facing a dominant backfield that features three 1,000-yard rushers for Fairview.
Devon Turner leads the Fairview backfield with 1,456 yards and 23 touchdowns. He exploded in the Eagles’ region title win over Pikeville with 224 yards.
Seniors Chris Brewer (1,379 yards and 17 touchdowns this season) and Elijah King (1,148 yards and 17 touchdowns) round out the backfield that Dixon called explosive.
“We haven’t played any team like this,” Dixon said. “This team gives us a challenge we haven’t had this year. We haven’t faced a team with 1,000 yards and they can hit you all directions. It’s just a very explosive football team.
“This is the type of team you expect to play in the state semifinals.”
While the aura around the game has been great, McPeek said his team has been focused at practice, even with school being out all week for the Thanksgiving holiday.
And that goes back to McPeek’s days at Marshall. He shared a quote his old coach Bobby Pruett said to him.
“If you can’t get ready for this one, you don’t have a pulse,” McPeek said. “If you can’t get the juices flowing for this one, you’re in the wrong business. The kids are really excited for Friday.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.