By KYLE HOBSTETTER
PAINTSVILLE Last season, Johnson Central had the arduous task of replacing the state’s all-time leading rusher J.J. Jude.
The task ultimately fell to running backs Daymion Belcher and Jordan Young and fullback Josh Dillon. The trio ended up leading the Golden Eagles to a district title and a 9-3 record.
But even with great team success, Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said he understands the pressure of following a record-setting back like Jude.
“People still say who is going to take J.J.’s place, even though he’s been gone for two years,” Matney said. “But I think they are each earning a name for themselves. I’m sure it’s great pressure, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.
“I don’t think the kids think about following J.J.’s footsteps as much as they think about their own legacy and the legacy of the team.”
Each back stepped up to the challenge in 2012. Belcher led the trio, rushing over 1,500 yards, while Young put up 1,200 and Dillon came a just few yards short of eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark.
While each of them put a personal mark on last season, Belcher admitted there are still comparisons to Jude.
“I felt a little pressure,” Belcher said. “It’s tough when everyone wants you to be just as good as him. So I just go out and try to think that I can be better.”
Following Jude was pressure enough but, since Matney took over the program a decade ago, expectations for Johnson Central running backs have been set high.
It seems after their performance last year, Matney has a reason to have those high expectations again.
“We’d be disappointed if we didn’t have three 1,000-yard rushers,” Matney said. “We just try to take what the defense gives us. And having those three makes us a little harder to stop. If (the opposing team) comes out and says, ‘Tonight we’re going to stop Belcher,’ then you’ve got two more 1,000-yard rushers to go to in Young and Dillon.
“It’s good to have those threats. The last two years we’ve been young and we’ve been building up for this.”
Each of those threats brings something different. Belcher has the complete back build with a good mix of speed and strength. In Young, there is the classic speed back who builds up his quickness in the offseason as an All-State wrestler. Dillon takes all the punishment, and is also a threat to break a long run at any time.
“I feel like any of us can get a first down or a touchdown,” Young said.
“Or break free for a 50-yard touchdown,” Belcher added. “All of us have that kind of ability.”
While all three couldn’t be blamed for taking credit for their accomplishments, they all quickly voiced the two key aspects to the Johnson Central offense.
Those two things were Matney’s offensive scheme (the “belly” offense) and the Golden Eagles reloading at offensive line each year.
“I think the yards just come with the offense,” Dillon said. “We have a good line and our system gets a 1,000-yard rusher every year. If you just follow your blockers, you’re guaranteed a first down every time you touch the ball.”
“We’re averaging pretty good size-wise,” Young said about the line. “We run for the yards, but there wouldn’t be any yards without them. We owe it to them.”
Even though the spotlight will be on Belcher, Young and Dillon, Matney pointed out that there are younger guys behind them who could step up and put up big yards too.
He added that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the three junior varsity backs become 1,000-yard rushers soon.
“We got three junior varsity running backs that are going to be pretty darn good too,” Matney said. “Conner Ratliff and Bryce Skaggs are tremendous young running backs and they will see some playing time this year. We have a good group coming up.”
Matney believes he’s going to need all the help he can get for this season, which consists of what he describes as one of the hardest schedules in the state.
Matchups on the docket include trips to Ashland, Belfry and Ironton and a home game against Harlan County, which returns most of a team that went to the KHSAA Class 5A state semifinals.
“This has to be one of the most challenging schedules in the state,” Matney said. “That’s our daunting task. Our program has come a long ways, but this is a big task for us.”
But the backfield trio all agreed — no matter how hard the schedule, the goal is the same: Make a run to state.
“I think we can make a good run at state this year but it’s going to be tough,” Dillon said.
“We want to beat Highlands,” Belcher said about the six-time defending Class 4A state champions. “Everyone says we can’t but Ashland stayed with them for a half (last year) and we beat Ashland ... so you never know.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658.
Johnson Central’s backfield trio enjoy piling up the yards
By KYLE HOBSTETTER
- Local Sports
VIDEO: 16th Region semifinals highlights
Fleming County defeated Lewis County, 66-58, and Ashland beat Greenup County, 81-61, on Monday night at Morehead State University to set up tonight's championship matchup. Tipoff is set for 7.
Ashland cruises past Greenup to 16th Region championship game
Tyler Stewart is known for his unrelenting hustle as one of Ashland’s glue guys.
When the senior guard can pitch in some offense too, as he did Monday in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals, that’s just one more problem for Tomcats opponents.
Stewart scored 20 points, senior Steven Friley posted a double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Ashland outscored Greenup County 21-9 in the third quarter to break open what was a seven-point game at halftime and cruise past the Musketeers, 81-61.
Fleming battles back to 16th Region final
A healthy Wilder Williams this season has given Fleming County a whole new dimension.
Prior to his sophomore year, Williams sustained a football injury that resulted in three ankle surgeries and limited him to bench duty last season while the Panthers made their run to the 16th Region championship.
A physical 6-foot-3 player, Williams is making his presence felt around the basket as Fleming County looks to return to the Sweet Sixteen.
AARON SNYDER: Will the next hero be unmasked?
Who will the bat signal shine for tonight?
Or, should I say, the Cat signal?
In the third installment of a trilogy that might rival the Batman three-pack of “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Fleming County and Ashland will battle in a matchup that has produced a classic clash in each of the last two 16th Region Tournaments.
If the first two collectively served as a gradual progressions to tonight’s scene, the climax could be off the charts.
Corey Gregg was Ashland’s superhero in 2012, when the senior confidently fired a perfect 3-point shot from the right corner. The triple thrust the Tomcats and Panthers into overtime, from which Ashland emerged 79-73 in a first-round game.
Central wins, Lawrence falls in 15th
The biggest concern for Lawrence County coach Josh Cook was staying out of foul trouble.
His team stayed in it all night, and it cost them a spot in the 15th Region title game.
Shelby Valley senior Tyler Carr led four players in double figures with 19 points as the Wildcats knocked off Lawrence County, 72-60, in the semifinals of the 15th Region Tournament at the East Kentucky Expo Center.
“This one hurts,” said Cook. “We’ll learn from this, and I have no doubt that our kids will get back here and finish the job.”
- Fleming hangs tough to beat Lewis Fleming County locked into another fight against Lewis County, which beat the Panthers earlier this season, before winning 66-58 on Monday in Morehead. Wilder Williams posted a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Panthers, who face Ashland on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
- GALLERY: Ashland gets by Greenup County, will meet Fleming in region final Ashland's Steven Friley scored 21 points Monday to lead the Tomcats to an 81-61 win over Greenup County in the 16th Region semifinal in Morehead.
Kittens clamoring for more at state
Ashland girls basketball coaches went the extra mile, and a whole bunch more, to get a first-hand scouting report on the Kittens’ opponent for the State Tournament.
Head coach Bill Bradley and assistant Phil Wittich drove all the way to Henderson — 5 hours, 20 minutes one way Bradley said on the way home — to take in Sunday’s Second Region championship game.
Henderson County, playing on its home floor, defeated University Heights 67-54. The Lady Colonels went unbeaten in their region this season and are 24-5 overall.
EKC hands out hardware
The Eastern Kentucky Conference handed out its 2014 awards on Monday afternoon at a luncheon at Carter Caves.
Barracudas earn kudos from coach
Ashland Area YMCA swimmers impressed coach Ryan Ferguson from start to finish in the three-day Kentucky Y Competitive Swim League State Meet.
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- VIDEO: 16th Region semifinals highlights