Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl Class 4A Championship

Johnson Central's Ryley Preece returns a punt during the fourth quarter against Franklin-Simpson. KEVIN GOLDY | THE DAILY INDEPENDENT

PAINTSVILLE Want to stump Ryley Preece, at least momentarily?

Johnson Central football’s No. 1 commits quickly when he’s deciding what to do with the football in the belly option. Golden Eagles baseball’s No. 10 doesn’t hem and haw once he’s decided to steal second base.

Not so much when you ask him which sport he likes better.

“A lot of it depends on the season,” Preece said. “Whenever it’s the fall, I’m all football. Springtime, baseball. But ever since I was a little kid, baseball was my first love, I guess you could say.

“I’ve grown to love Friday nights and football is a really close second. It might be first after this season, who knows?”

Golden Eagles gridiron coach Jim Matney marveled at a home run Preece hit last spring that cleared the lightpoles, he said.

“One of the darnedest things I ever saw,” Matney said.

He regardless has benefitted more than most from Preece making time for his second love — because Matney doesn’t think Johnson Central would have won the 2016 Class 4A state championship if Geordon Blanton hadn’t played wide receiver.

And, stepping backwards one domino, the Golden Eagles couldn’t have shifted Blanton out wide if then-freshman Preece hadn’t proven capable of playing quarterback.

“Honestly, Geordon kinda didn’t want to play (quarterback),” Preece said wryly. “If he had to, he was gonna play there, but I guess the coaches just saw something in me, saw that I could run the offense even as a freshman, and they needed Geordon more at split end. That was a killer role for our team.”

That spread out opposing defenses, instead of allowing them to collapse on Johnson Central’s most dynamic player. It also preserved Blanton physically for his role as safety net for the Golden Eagles’ defense.

“That parlayed into a state championship, and I don’t believe we would have won it if had we not made that move,” Matney said. “Not because Geordon wasn’t a terrific quarterback, just because it made us much more of a dual threat.”

Preece indeed threw for 1,313 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 64 of 90 passes that season. That was more than enough to keep opposing defenses from singlemindedly focusing on a Johnson Central rushing attack that produced 4,874 ground yards.

“They just saw something in me, they believed in me, and they trusted me with the ball and making the play calls, trusted me to audible at the line,” Preece said. “It worked out.”

The Golden Eagles returned to the state final each of the last two seasons. If Johnson Central has its druthers, Preece will start in his fourth state championship game on the first weekend of December at Kroger Field.

Preece has helped lift the Golden Eagles to the carpet with his speed. He was only called upon to rush for 29 yards as a freshman, but picked up 660 yards on the ground and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore and amassed 852 yards and 19 TDs last year.

“Sometimes you may not run it once” as a quarterback in the Golden Eagles’ offense, Preece said, “but the next game, you’ll break about five runs for 80 yards each. It’s just great seeing how a lot of people bite on the belly or a few of our other good plays, and the whole defense swarms to them, and I just take off around the end unnoticed. It’s really fun just fooling people, sometimes fooling the refs.”

Piloting an option offense requires a mastery of reading defenses. Preece had a head start on that by the time he joined the varsity Golden Eagles because Johnson County Middle School runs a similar offense.

“I was learning (those plays) from the seventh grade up, and I knew a lot of the terminology coming in,” Preece said. “Coach Matney really took me under his wing and showed me how to run it and told me every play call to make, every audible at the line. He helped me in ways that I can’t really describe.”

Matney’s connection with the Preeces dates back to coaching Ryley’s father, Kent Preece, in Sheldon Clark’s baseball program.

“His dad’s a heck of an athlete, so he comes by it honestly,” Matney said. “He’s a hard worker, just a great leader.”

Despite Preece’s production on the football field — he is also a starting defensive back and an outstanding kick returner — and the diamond, he still awaits his first college offer, he said.

“It’s been pretty quiet right now,” Preece said. “I feel like after this year starts off, I’ll get a few offers. I don’t have any right now, but springtime, I’ll get some baseball offers. I want to play at the next level, and I’d be blessed to play for any college that would offer me.”

In the meantime, Preece wants to lift Johnson Central to its fifth straight state final — and to end a two-year losing streak at that stage.

“It keeps us hungry and it humbles us at the same time,” Preece said of losses to Franklin-Simpson at Kroger Field the last two Decembers. “Nothing’s given to us. Even though we’re a powerhouse, we still have to work for it just as much as anybody else ... just leave it all out on the field.”

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