Johnson Central has become quite fond of the bright lights and the big city.
Legendary Golden Eagles coach Jim Matney feels there is no better place than the mountains of eastern Kentucky. But the Golden Eagles have become a regular fixture on the big stage, and they have no plans of not returning this season.
Matney said despite enduring uncertain times during the health crisis, the team has had a tremendous offseason and is ready to defend its Class 4A state title.
“You can’t say anything is normal right now,” Matney said, “but on the other end, you’ll find as much excitement here as you will find anywhere, especially with the announcement that we are going to play.”
Johnson Central has reached five straight title games and has its sights firmly set on another. The Golden Eagles recorded their first undefeated season in school history in 2019. During a mauling march to the championship game, they dispatched their four opponents by a combined score of 187-34.
Johnson Central counts on its defense all year. It delivered in the final moments of the championship game to thwart a final rally from Boyle County to win, 21-20.
The Golden Eagles have several positions to fill this year after the graduation of talented and experienced starting players.
“We will return six starters on offense and six starters on defense,” Matney said. “The ones that graduated, they were incredible. You don’t have that very often, especially at a county school. The last five state championships, I’d normally dress anywhere from 55 to 62 players.”
“The cupboard is never bare here,” said Matney, who enters his 17th season at the helm of the Golden Eagles program. He has amassed 173 of his 297 career wins at Johnson Central.
Johnson Central has never had a losing season under Matney. The coach said it’s all attributed to the hard work of his coaches and players throughout the years.
“They have embraced the idea of the next man up,” Matney said. “Winning is a mindset and losing is a mindset. It took me a while to break that losing mindset. Our kids believe that they’re going to win. We have to teach them that it’s great that you feel that way. You believe in yourself and believe in what we do here in the program, but you have to understand there’s been incredible sacrifice put in by players before you.”
“They believe when they take the field, no matter who it’s against, that they’re going to win,” he added, “but you got to put that time in. That’s the mindset that we’re in now. We are excited. We really have become closer as a whole community.”
Johnson Central has bookended tough tests during the upcoming abbreviated schedule. The Golden Eagles will try and adapt some new players with enhanced roles when they travel to Bell County in their season opener. The Bobcats went through last year’s campaign without a blemish before running into Belfry in the Class 3A final.
It will be a battle of defending state champions when Belfry comes calling on Oct. 30.
“Traditionally, we’re not very good at the first of the season,” Matney said. “It would take a crazy person to do what we’re doing taking on Bell County in the first game of the year at Bell County. We believe in our competition. I believe it makes you better. It may hurt your pride a little bit, but I’m just a believer in it.”
The Golden Eagles will have new faces on the field when they see the first snap of the football. Four of Johnson Central’s leading rushers from last season have departed and took with them a combined 3,532 yards on the ground and 57 touchdowns.
Junior Grant Rice will be the new guy under center. Matney is excited about what Rice brings to the table. He is an athletic player who also contributes to the basketball team.
“We have an outstanding quarterback,” Matney said. “I don’t think he’s lost a freshman or JV game. He is an outstanding young man. Our basketball coach (Tommy McKenzie) always shares his players with me and allowed me to pick up some good players from his team.”
Dylan Preston had 77 carries and tallied 588 rushing yards and five scores last season. His workload is expected to increase in his senior year. He was the Most Valuable Player of the Class 4A final as a junior.
Fellow senior Zach Russell, a Bowling Green State commit, figures to weigh heavily in the passing game and on defense.
“There is a core to build around,” Matney said. “We lost too much to start out of the gate quickly. We obviously are going to have to try to get it together and keep getting better. I’ve always said and preached that we always try to peak at the right time.”
“The best way to beat us is to get us early,” he continued. “It has a lot to do with our offense, reading things and advancing our blocking scheme. … The quarterback always gets better at all his reads. It’s going to be interesting to see how we respond. At some point in the year, we can become a very good football team. Whether we are Week 1 or Week 2 is still left to be said.”
A big reason for Johnson Central’s success comes from its talented offensive line, led by 6-foot-6, 302-pound junior Grant Bingham. Owen Lemaster, Keygan Pelphrey, tight end Toby Spriggs and Cam Willis form a stout wall for the offense.
“Our quarterback is young, but he’s been in the system for a long time,” Bingham said. “He knows this place. We have Dylan Preston back and he is a huge asset to our team on both sides of the ball. I think we are looking good.”
Matney also mentioned several young players that have the talent and motivation to become key contributors on Friday nights. Mason Lawson and Cam Wright in the backfield will get some handoffs.
Preston and Ross are among only a few players on the roster that play both ways. Jesse McCoy, Bradyn Price and Andrew Burchett man a strong defensive line. Chris Meek could see time on both sides of the ball.
“Our hope is that we keep working hard,” Matney said. “As far as we’re concerned, we are starting our road back. We want to be in that state championship for a sixth straight time. We are going at it as hard as we can right now.”