Pikeville’s Jackson Hensley carries as Paintsville’s Zach Thompson pursues on Sept. 6.

Michael Salmons called Paintsville and Pikeville “the two best teams in Class A,” and Alan Short tabbed the Tigers and Panthers “two very well-coached, very athletic teams.”

They would know. Salmons’ Raceland team met Paintsville twice and Pikeville once this season, while Lawrence County, coached by Short, encountered both the Tigers and the Panthers in the regular season.

Paintsville and Pikeville meet in the Class A state title game on Friday at 2 p.m. in Lexington. It’s a rematch of the Panthers’ 9-8 victory in a thriller on Sept. 6 at Memorial Field.

Short expects more of the same Friday.

“The score the first time around is what I would expect to see again on Friday,” Short said, “a low-scoring, close game, because they’re both so strong defensively.”

The teams’ quality is similar, based on their first meeting and on their résumés, but they didn’t achieve it quite the same way.

Pikeville’s defining characteristic is speed, Short said.

The Panthers showed it against the Rams with their scoring plays in a 12-6 victory at W.C. Hambley Athletic Complex on Sept. 13. Cody Raines returned a punt 60 yards to the house, and Isaac McNamee hit Zac Lockhart with an 85-yard scoring strike on the first play of the fourth quarter.

“I think they’re a home run-hitting team, and they can hit them fast, in a hurry, from anywhere, any given time,” Salmons said, referencing those plays. “What probably makes them even more scary is they have the ability with (Raines, a running back) to pound you a little bit and set up their explosiveness even more, to make you kinda ripe for the picking, so to speak.”

For Paintsville, it’s size up front. Friday’s projected starting offensive linemen — Dustin McKenzie, Aaron Baker, Parker Preece, Matt Davis and John Blackburn — average 299.8 pounds, according to their sizes reported to the KHSAA, and Hunter Ousley, who checks in at 385 pounds, regularly mixes in.

Tigers backs have rushed for 2,929 yards behind that group and injured center Grant Ray, including a 489-yard effort against Kentucky Country Day in the state semifinals.

“Of all the 12 teams that are left, Paintsville may have the biggest offensive line,” Salmons said. “They are blessed with great size on the offensive and defensive fronts, and as the season’s gone on, I think what they’ve done a good job of is kinda building up to who they are right now, and right now, they’re a power-running football team.

“The quarterback, (Jake) Hyden, is a tough-as-nails player, and (John Walker) Phelps is playing like a possessed senior. You get that combination, and you get hot at the right time, and that’s where you find yourself.”

That’s a strategic shift from earlier in the season, Salmons said. Paintsville passed for more yards than it ran for in regular-season victories over Beechwood, East Jessamine, Union (Virginia), Fairview, Betsy Layne and Lexington Christian. Notably, Hyden threw for 306 yards against East Jessamine, and Hyden and Frederick James combined for 347 through the air versus Fairview.

But come playoff time, the Tigers turned on the ground game. Paintsville ran for 365 yards and passed for 108 in a rematch with the Eagles, rushed for 147 and passed for 69 in its second victory over Raceland, and amassed 345 yards on the ground while throwing for 24 in the third-round win over Williamsburg.

That preceded the ground-gobbling victory over the Bearcats, in which Paintsville did not complete a pass — and didn’t need to.

“They did throw the ball early and threw it often, just trying to kinda see who they were,” Salmons said, referencing the Tigers, whose roster numbered 33 in the preseason. “They knew the quarterback is an experienced player, and I just feel like they didn’t totally feel confident that they could stay healthy for 15 games and get to this point by playing power football, and they may or may not be right.

“But one thing’s for sure, what they’ve done as a coaching staff in the last month to get to this point is phenomenal, and it’s worked out for them.”

That same size and physicality on Paintsville’s front also applies to its defense, which Lawrence County saw firsthand in a 48-17 Tigers victory in Louisa on Aug. 23.

“I think probably once or twice the rest of the year we saw something that would resemble that, with Jaylyn Allen and the big kids they had on their line,” Short said. “That was what glaringly stood out to us, was how well they were coached defensively.”’

Lawrence County and Raceland were both winless against the final duo, although the Rams fared better than the Bulldogs in terms of the score. In addition to Raceland’s 12-6 loss at Pikeville, the Rams fell at Paintsville, 19-15, on a play decided on the final play of the game by a successfully defensed Raceland pass into the end zone, before losing to the Tigers, 32-18, in the Class A, District 6 title game. Raceland was within a score entering the fourth quarter of that one before Paintsville pulled away.

“I think we’re all three so familiar with each other, it’s almost like a chess game,” Salmons said, referencing the Rams, Tigers and Panthers. “So I think the familiarity from each standpoint was one of the things that made the games really competitive. ... I think our players know that those are the biggest games each of us will play.”

That will be more true than ever Friday, when the Tigers and Panthers tangle for state supremacy.

“When teams are playing in the state finals, it’s just gonna come down to one or two, three, four plays in the course of the game,” Short said, “and whoever makes those plays is probably gonna bring a state championship trophy back home to eastern Kentucky.”

Salmons thinks Paintsville needs to try to get a lead on Pikeville and then play keepaway from the Panthers’ athleticism. Conversely, from his standpoint, Pikeville must keep Paintsville from dominating the line of scrimmage, try to create turnovers and use its strong special teams and playmakers to the Panthers’ advantage.

Short doesn’t anticipate Paintsville coach Joe Chirico, Pikeville boss Chris McNamee or their staffs veering far off the course they’ve set.

“We as coaches are pretty well creatures of habit,” Short said. “They’ve found the formula that works for them.

“Pikeville and Paintsville, the first time around, that was in September; that was almost a complete season ago at this point, so who really knows. I’m sure they’ll both have a different wrinkle or two, but I would say they’ll continue doing what they’ve been doing to get to this point.”

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