Football coaches Leon Hart of Ashland and Philip Haywood of Belfry share a strong affinity for opponents that will make their teams better down the road.
That’s why the state-ranked Tomcats and Pirates are meeting for the fourth consecutive year, a series that Hart says Ashland wants to extend after the contract expires this season.
“I think for both of us it’s a great non-district game,” Hart said. “All of it is working to get you better for the playoffs, and tough teams in your district.”
“We’ve had some real competitive games,” Haywood said. “They’ve been close. I think fans have always gotten their money’s worth.”
Friday night at Putnam Stadium shapes up as another in a line of tight, physical battles.
Ashland, 6-1 and No. 6 in the Class 4A rankings, relies on its strong offensive and defensive fronts to set the table. Belfry, 5-1 and ranked fourth in 3A, has a tradition of winning the line of scrimmage.
“I don’t ever remember playing Belfry that it wasn’t a physical game,” Hart said. “Year in and year out, they are good ball games.”
Belfry won the 2011 matchup 7-6 after the Tomcats came out on top the two previous years.
Overall, Hart feels fortunate to hold a career 3-1 advantage against the Pirates, including a 28-27 overtime victory in 2006.
“During my time here, Belfry has won it (state title) twice and been to the championship game or semifinals multiple times,” Hart said. “They are playing really good football teams along the way. And you are talking about a guy who is the winningest coach in the history of the state.”
Haywood, now in his 38th season overall, has a career record of 355-122 and continues to enjoy coaching at age 61. And not just because of the Ws.
“I love being around our coaches and the players,” he said. “Everybody loves to win obviously, but I always felt a bigger calling to the game than winning. You can make a difference in kids’ lives.
“There’s values and character traits you find in this game, through discipline and work ethic, than you find other places.”
Since Ashland and Belfry met last fall, the Pirates made another trip to the state finals. They ended a 13-2 season with a runner-up finish to Louisville Central for the second consecutive year.
The Pirates returned a good nucleus of players, led by inside linebackers Payton Mullins and Madison Ghormley, defensive end Tony Messer and running back Justin Johnson.
Last year, Johnson gained 110 yards on 14 carries against the Tomcats.
“Their offensive line is impressive every year,” Hart said. “They come off the ball low, fast and play physical.”
The Pirates are on a roll. Since a 40-20 loss to Henry Clay, Belfry has clobbered Prestonsburg, Pikeville, Sheldon Clark and East Ridge by a combined 206-12.
“The competition has not been as strong as you expect from those teams,” Haywood said. “We really need a game like this,” Haywood said of Ashland.
The Tomcats beat Rowan County 48-0 and Boyd County 56-16 the past two weeks.
Haywood called Ashland as physical a team as Belfry will face all season.
“They have big, physical kids on the line that move well,” he said. “They play hard every play.”
Freshman running back Quinton Baker needs 78 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Haywood said. “He has good vision and can make you miss. I think those are the keys to his success right now.”
Ashland lost key contributor Jeremy Jackson to leg and knee injuries last week. The senior was hurt while carrying the ball for a 9-yard gain in the fourth quarter. Hart said Jackson sustained a broken femur and torn ACL, ending his promising season.
Jackson made his first defensive start against Boyd County. He was also backing up Baker at tailback and had earned a reputation as a valuable special teams player.
“It’s a shame for him and for the depth of our team,” Hart said. “Jeremy is a kid that came back to Ashland this year, started late and was really coming on. He made a lot of plays on special teams.”
The Tomcats’ coaching staff gradually had Jackson doing more and more. Offensively, he averaged 7.2 yards on 13 carries and scored two touchdowns.
“He’s fast and physical,” Hart said. “He made a couple of nice runs. You could see his role expanding.”
With Jackson out, Baker is expected to see more time on special teams with sophomore Tyler Sutton moving up the depth chart at running back.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.