East Carter Lineman

The East Carter line, with Garon Castle (53), Bryson Kiser (56), Skyler McCormick (62) and Mikey Holbrook (64), lines up in front of Raiders quarterback Kanyon Kozee (13) on Sept. 10 against West Carter.

GRAYSON East Carter has been in win-or-go-home games ever since the third-to-last regular season outing of its senior class’s freshman year.

Linemen Skyler McCormick, Mikey Holbrook, Bryson Kiser and Garon Castle will play in another one tonight — with just a bit more fanfare.

When McCormick got on the field defensively for the Raiders as a freshman, East Carter was toting the state’s longest playoff drought, and the Raiders were winless in district play with two such games left: at Boyd County and home against Rowan County.

East Carter topped the Lions, 14-12, and followed it with a 25-21 victory over the Vikings. And thus, its first trip to the postseason in a decade.

“We all worked our tails off,” McCormick recollected Wednesday. “When we beat Rowan County, we were so happy that we finally got to have a playoff berth. Now we’re doing things our senior year that we never really thought were possible.”

Namely — the Raiders’ first-ever win against Ashland and second defeat of Russell, their first district title since 1983, tying for the most victories in a season in program history, their inaugural region championship and hosting Belfry tonight in their maiden voyage to the state semifinals.

“We’re here,” McCormick continued, “and we want to keep rolling.”

Equally important

East Carter’s most-talked-about player, far and away, is Charlie Terry, and justifiably so. The senior back has 1,794 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns entering Friday’s tilt with the Pirates. Kanyon Kozee isn’t far behind: the 12th-grade signal-caller has thrown for 1,194 yards and run for 413 more.

But the offensive line — from left to right, McCormick, Izack Messer, Holbrook, Kiser and Castle — has been the other half of the equation that actualizes the prodigious skill the Raiders have in the backfield and on the perimeter.

In other words, neither is playing in the state semifinals without the other.

Just ask Joe Wynn, whose Mason County club East Carter eviscerated, 38-10, in the region final last Friday.

More specifically, ask Wynn about Terry.

“Oh, he’s a stud,” Wynn said, “but the offensive line moves people too.”

What’s more, all except for Messer are seniors, and coach Tim Champlin sees that group and Terry and the backfield as equally important to the Raiders’ success.

“We’ve had good offensive lines in the past and we’ve had good backs in the past,” the Raiders’ seventh-year coach said. “To have both of those at the same time mesh up right now is really, really special, and it’s one of the main reasons we’re playing this Friday in the fourth round.”

That synergy was perhaps best displayed on the first play from scrimmage last Friday.

It wasn’t an unusually imaginative play call — by design. The idea, Champlin said, was for the Raiders to run something “safe,” simply to see how the Royals would line up against it.

Any discernment of Mason County’s game plan beyond that would have to wait until East Carter’s second possession, because the Raiders offensive line and Terry worked in concert to turn a simple sweep into a 65-yard scoring dash on the first play from scrimmage.

“They make it easy for us,” Kiser said of the Raiders’ skill-position players. “I just pull and hit a guy, and Charlie just runs by me and it’s a 70-yard touchdown.”

And Terry made sure the wider world knew it wasn’t just his doing, crediting his blocking in a postgame interview.

The Raiders’ big boys up front noticed and appreciated it.

“Our boys like Charlie and Kanyon, they always give us love,” McCormick said. “If it’s a little comment that they give in an interview, or whatever, we know that those boys appreciate us, and that to us means more than anything.”

Putting puzzle together

The quartet has been playing together since they were little, but didn’t get onto the varsity line simultaneously. As Holbrook broke it down: McCormick got varsity snaps first, defensively as a freshman; Kiser got on the field next, but not as an offensive lineman; Holbrook earned significant snaps as a sophomore and Castle began starting as a junior.

“I feel like being able to work together for so long helps us be able to know each other,” Castle said. “Bryson, he’s my guard; I know what kind of steps he’ll be taking, I know what kind of moves he’ll make, and I can adjust to that kind of thing and work with him like that.”

Kiser had to be cajoled into that role. He got on the field first as a fullback and on the defensive front and wasn’t particularly anxious to move to the O-line.

Then Kiser discovered pancakes — hold the syrup.

“I didn’t really want to (play up front), but once I started doing it, man, I loved it,” he said. “I love dominating the other team’s defensive linemen, just putting them to the ground and laying on them.”

The center is charged with keeping blocking schemes and assignments straight, and it’s no different for the Raiders. Kiser tabbed Holbrook the “smartest guy on the field.”

“Sometimes I don’t even know the play and I’ll just look at him,” Kiser said, “and he’ll just tell me, block this guy, and I go block him.”

Messer, a sophomore, has joined the fray. East Carter calls its linemen “the hogs” and has tabbed Messer “the piglet” because of his youth and smaller stature compared to his cohorts, Champlin said. But that isn’t intended to diminish Messer’s contributions.

“Izack does a phenomenal job,” Champlin said. “Fits right in with these guys. They put him under their wing and carry him along and pull him up and keep him going and force him to play to their level, and he has the ability to do that as well.”

Turning point, pushing forward

It took the line some time to gel, Champlin said, and he first saw where it was going in East Carter’s fourth game.

The Raiders started 2-0 before a 22-16 setback to West Carter in Grayson. East Carter was at a turning point.

Turned out, the Raiders weren’t letting that loss steal their season. Perry County Central just happened to be in the way and sustained a 40-8 loss a week later.

“We didn’t come out and lay down in that game,” Champlin said. “We came out fired up and with the intentions of getting better and the intentions of playing to our ability.”

It’s been more of the same ever since, with only one misstep along the way — a 31-20 loss to Ashland on Oct. 8. Even that was a mere precursor to the Raiders’ 26-16 victory over the Tomcats in the Class 3A, District 7 title game five weeks later.

Now, the seniors up front envision Steve Womack Field tonight as something that would’ve been unimaginable and unrecognizable when they first donned navy jerseys and white helmets.

“They have parking rules now,” Holbrook said. “That’s amazing to me. Now they don’t have enough spots to park. I think that’s amazing.”

Concurred McCormick: “I look at our fans, and from little kids all the way up to older men and women, seeing them so happy and excited for the community and for us, to me, it’s the most important thing ever.”

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