Eastern Kentucky versus Louisville.
That’s the battleground for the Class A football semifinals Friday night. Pikeville (12-0) hosts Holy Cross (11-2), while Paintsville (10-3) travels to Kentucky Country Day (13-0).
“It’s crazy the way it worked out,” Paintsville coach Joe Chirico said.
Under the previous system — designed more along geographical lines — Paintsville and Pikeville would be meeting each other this round. Ditto for the Louisville teams.
However, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association introduced the RPI formula this season. Beginning in the third round of the playoffs, RPI rankings are used to determine matchups.
Kentucky Country Day is rated No. 1 among the semifinalists, followed by Pikeville, Holy Cross and Paintsville.
“That’s what kind of throws it off,” said Pikeville coach Chris McNamee, who has guided the Panthers to eight semifinals appearances in his two stints as head coach. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be here before. Usually at this point, you’re playing somebody from your general area. This is different. You don’t know as much.”
“The one good thing about the RPI,” McNamee continued, “if you’re fortunate to be up there in one of top two spots, you can host.”
Both semifinal games will be first-time matchups.
Chirico has Paintsville in the semifinals for the third time in five seasons. The Tigers are excited to return to the Final Four after being bumped out a round earlier by Raceland the past two years.
“You don’t take it for granted,” Chirico said. “You never know year to year. It’s exciting for the community, school, parents, everybody. We’re enjoying the moment.”
McNamee and Chirico say their teams are too busy concentrating on their next opponents to think about a possible all-eastern Kentucky state championship. Pikeville got past Paintsville, 8-7, during the regular season.
“I would like to play anybody,” Chirico said on the subject. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We have a big challenge in front of us. Country Day is 13-0 or 14-0. They’re a really good football team.”
So far, KCD has outscored opponents 547-182. The Bearcats like to get the ball into the hands of senior playmakers Dorian Heard and Nick Smith.
Heard averages 142.6 yards rushing with 30 touchdowns on the ground. He carried for 221 yards and four TDs in KCD’s 36-22 victory over Crittenden County last week.
“Heard’s a phenomenal runner and throws some, too,” Chirico said. “He plays running back, quarterback ... he does it all. They play kind of a side-saddle T. He gets the ball some, the quarterback (Luke Russo) gets it some. It’s a really hard defense to defend.”
Smith has added nearly 1,000 yards rushing and 749 receiving — with a combined 25 touchdowns.
Paintsville’s biggest task this week?
“Stopping the run,” said Chirico, whose team is coming off a 36-34 win over Williamsburg. “We’re definitely going to have to play better defense.”
Paintsville’s offense features balance behind double-threat quarterback Jake Hyden and running back John Walker Phelps. Nine of wideout Karsten Poe’s 28 receptions have gone for touchdowns. Harris Phelps’ 34 receptions leads the team.
Meanwhile, Pikeville is trying to get to the state title game for the second year in a row. The Panthers dropped a 21-20 heartbreaker to Beechwood in the 2018 final. Beechwood moved up to 2A this season and lost its opener to Paintsville 19-14.
Pikeville showed its mettle early in the season by winning consecutive close calls against Paintsville, Raceland and Belfry.
“I went back. I think one of the better teams we played was Bardstown,” McNamee said of a 47-25 triumph to open the season. “Those first five games were a test. I’m proud of the way we fought each week. The good thing about playing those good teams early is it exposes your weaknesses. It gives you things to work on.”
A largely veteran squad received a lift from its new starting quarterback. Sophomore Isaac McNamee — the coach’s son — has completed 122 of 187 passes for 1,954 yards and 25 TDs.
“I think in that stretch of games we talked about he grew up,” Pikeville’s coach said of the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder. “Coming in as a sophomore, there were expectations on this team. Learning and growing, he got more comfortable. I’m proud of the way Isaac worked on and off the field. He has good people to get the ball to and our offensive line has come along and done some good things, too.”
Senior Jackson Hensley leads the receiving cast with 41 grabs for 620 yards and nine scores. The Harvard commit had two long touchdown catches in last year’s state championship game.
“Jackson can catch the ball in traffic, run by people and he’s elusive with the football,” Chris McNamee said. “He’s just a good athlete.”
Cody Raines leads the rushing attack with 13 TDs and more than 900 yards. Defensively, senior Jon Collum has racked up a team-best 100 tackles — 12 behind the line of scrimmage.
The Panthers’ 54-14 romp over Nicholas County last week allowed them to equal the win total of their 2015 state championship team that finished 13-2.
For Holy Cross — winner of six in a row — quarterback Chaz Geraghty and running backs Luke Davis and Lex Thomas have combined for more than 3,000 yards rushing this season.
“As a team, they’re disciplined, well coached and play extremely hard,“ McNamee said. “They run the football really well.”
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