Paintsville’s exhilarating run through the Class A playoffs culminated with its first state final appearance in 34 years. The Tigers are preparing to return to the big stage and claim something they’ve never had.
A state title.
The team savored the moment playing at Kroger Field and is working hard to take that next step in 2020, its coach said.
“The kids are upbeat about playing football here,” Paintsville coach Joe Chirico said. “We went to the state finals, but we got beat pretty bad and didn’t make a good showing. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. With every team in the state, one team ends happy and the rest are mad.
“We got to work harder and do the things we need to do. The atmosphere around here has been good but it’s always good here. I love my kids. They always give their best effort.”
The Tigers collected their fifth straight district championship last fall before their march to the state championship game. They defeated district rival Raceland, who had knocked Paintsville out of the postseason the last two years. The Tigers outlasted Williamsburg and then upended previously unbeaten Kentucky Country Day.
Quarterback Jake Hyden leads a talented group of seniors in pursuit of a return trip to Lexington. The Tigers have several multi-year starters and the amount of football they have played together adds to the team chemistry.
“Every single person on this team knows each other inside and out,” Hyden said. “It makes it much easier on the football field. You almost know what the other guy is going to do and where they are going be at on the field. It helps so much.”
The senior class brings a wealth of experience as Paintsville faces another daunting schedule this year.
“They’ve always been a resilient group of kids during all the years I’ve been here,” Chirico said. “They have worked hard and never really complained.”
“We return 13 seniors,” he added. “What that means, I don’t know. On paper, it looks good, but it really means nothing. It depends on what happens on Friday nights and how hard we play. We need to execute, not make mistakes and, of course, limit turnovers.”
With the start of the season pushed back, the Tigers will not play Beechwood and Pikeville in the regular season. They will encounter six of their nine contests on the road, including a nearly six-hour drive to Crittenden County, and go to Raceland and Lexington Christian.
“For two years in a row, we’ve tried to have a schedule that is competitive as any Class A team around,” Chirico said. “That becomes challenging with the RPI system and teams don’t want to schedule smaller schools. We will see how the schedule plays out. Starting with East Jessamine, it is going to be a real test for us. They return their whole team.”
Hyden said the team’s confidence level has it prepared for the challenge ahead.
“We have a very tough schedule,” Hyden said. “It’s going to be a battle every week. It helps us get ready for the playoffs. You’re never going to play an easy team in the playoffs. We will be ready for it. It makes us so much better.”
Hyden tossed 15 TDs last year while he tallied 1,606 passing yards. He was heavily involved in the running game, accounting for 776 yards on the ground and 10 trips to the end zone.
Paintsville will look to an athletic cast of players to follow 1,000-rusher John Walker Phelps, including players in the Phelps and Hyden family trees. Phelps’s younger brother Harris, Zach Thompson and Hyden’s cousin, Luke, may see an increased number of handoffs this season.
“We have got several guys that will take some of that,” Chirico said, “but no one can replace John Walker. You can’t do that. We are just hoping guys can step up and do the best that they can do for their potential.”
Karsten Poe returns after a stellar season at wideout, collecting 671 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Chirico said Poe has caught more TDs than any receiver during his eight years at the helm of the Tigers.
Jonah Porter, Colby Fugate, who plays on the basketball team and missed his junior football year due to injuries, Devin Hall and Austin Allen all drew mention from Chirico as possible targets for Hyden.
The Tigers have experience and size along their offensive line. John Blackburn and Matt Davis are fourth-year starters. Austin Allen has started for three years. Paintsville has multiple candidates to fill roles on the offensive and defensive lines, including the spot left after the graduation of Dustin McKenzie.
“They like each other,” Chirico said. “They hang out all the time. That’s important for the offensive line.”
Paintsville players do not see much time on the sideline as the majority of Tigers play on both sides of the football.
Luke Hyden is the team’s leading returning tackler with 69 solo and 105 total stops. He also sacked the quarterback four times. Hall added 65 tackles.
The team always resembles the toughness and grit of their coach. No starting role is set in stone.
“I don’t know if you have seen us, but we play ironman football here,” Chirico said. “Our best 11 guys will play offense and defense. The best guys will play.
“They want to be here together,” he added. “I always have to run them out of here. They would rather stay here all night. They like being around each other.”