As Ashland and Russell did battle for district bragging rights on Friday night, East Carter sought something less tangible, but in a different way, perhaps more important.
While most of the attention Friday night — understandably — was directed at Henry R. Evans Stadium, where the Tomcats edged the Red Devils to earn the distinction of regular-season district champion in Class 3A, District 7, ironically, it was on the same night the Raiders’ yell for attention had to be heeded.
All Tim Champlin and company want is for people to remember they play good football in Grayson, too. East Carter’s thrilling 30-29 victory at Greenup County went a long way, in the Raiders’ eyes, to accomplishing that.
“Going into the season, nobody gave us a chance,” Champlin said Friday night. “This was a three-team race: it was Greenup, Russell, Ashland. Nobody was talking about East Carter.
“We talked about all week, ‘Take your seat at the table,’ and I felt like tonight we took our seat at the table and made ourselves relevant.”
The Raiders are 6-2 heading to Russell on Friday night, ensuring their winningest season since 2005. They’re 1-1 in district play, and though it would require a couple of surprises on Friday night, East Carter heads into the district finale with a chance to tie for the best record in the district.
That scenario would have seemed outrageous when Champlin was hired as the Raiders’ new coach in January 2015. Not only was East Carter coming off an 0-10 season, punctuated by a 50-6 loss to a Greenup County team that was beginning its upward trend, but the Raiders were preparing to join Ashland and the Musketeers in the same district. This year, Russell joined that trio.
If you’re keeping score, in Class 3A, District 7, that makes two proven state-caliber contenders in the Tomcats and the Red Devils, a Musketeers team that has had its struggles this year but is still dangerous — and the Raiders, who were raring to break out.
“The district wasn’t something that we thought about at first,” Champlin said. “We were talking about little victories and getting first downs and completing balls and all those kinds of things.
“Five years ago, when I walked in and started spewing all this crazy stuff, they could’ve looked at me and told me I was crazy, and instead, they bought in and have been behind me the whole time.”
(Note the extended version of this feature, in order to dedicate an item to each of the northeastern Kentucky teams who won regular-season district championships on Friday night. It should be pointed out that, due to the new KHSAA playoff system featuring intra-district play in the first two rounds, the state now recognizes the winner of each second-round game as the district champion, confirmed KHSAA spokesman Joe Angolia.)
• Ashland, in a hard-hitting, dramatic 21-14 victory at Russell, claimed those honors in Class 3A, District 7 with a game to spare. Even if the Tomcats lose to Greenup County on Friday, they own tiebreakers with both East Carter and Russell, having beaten each.
Though it may be natural to peek ahead to a potential Ashland-Russell rematch, Tomcats coach Tony Love isn’t wired that way. And — though a couple of Tomcats couldn’t resist a prediction in this very publication that they will see the Red Devils again — Love said his team reflects his focus on the task at hand.
“Our kids are really zeroed in on who they’re getting ready to play,” Love said in an interview on the Kentucky High School Scoreboard Radio Show after Friday night’s win. “They don’t put a whole lot of thought into what’s down the road, and that’s good. They have a short memory, and their focus is right on the target in front of us. That’s really what we try to get the kids dialed into.”
Love matter-of-factly called Ashland senior Blake Hester “the toughest running back I’ve ever seen” on the weekly statewide radio show. Exhibit A: Hester’s hustling recovery of his own fumble at the Tomcats’ 3-yard line with less than 4 minutes to go in a tie game on Friday night. Jake Gregg promptly hit JT Garrett with a 97-yard scoring strike for the winning points.
• West Carter beat Martin County, 37-6, to secure the Class 2A, District 8 top seed. The Comets haven’t lost in district competition en route to their second title in program history.
That run began with a 33-7 win over Shelby Valley on Sept. 27. The Wildcats are coming off a 10-2 season and are five years removed from a trip to the Class 2A state semifinals, but the Comets beat them convincingly.
“We were aware that they were considered the favorite, as far as our district’s concerned, and being able to play them and take care of business really gave our kids a lot of confidence,” West Carter coach Daniel Barker said. “That gave us a lot of respect in the district, too. A lot of those teams are like, ‘I don’t know how you all did that,’ because (Shelby Valley is) so big.”
Speedster Leetavious Cline returned Friday in limited action after hurting his ankle two weeks earlier on the third play of the Comets’ 26-6 win over Bath County. That was only one of several injuries to significant contributors that West Carter has worked around.
Jackson Bond, Blake McGlone, Cole Crampton, Logan Berry, Sam Jones and Dominic Hinton have picked up the slack, Barker said.
“We feel like we’ve got good skill guys, and if one of those guys are out, it’s somebody else’s turn to make a play,” Barker said, “and the kids have really embraced that this year.”
• Johnson Central laid claim to Class 4A, District 8 regular-season top billing by blasting Harlan County, 56-6, on Friday night. It’s the Golden Eagles’ 11th regular-season crown in the last 14 seasons, and they’ve come in three different classes and, essentially, four different districts.
Despite being in a brand-new district, the Golden Eagles found themselves in a familiar spot on Friday — the de facto title game.
In each of the previous eight years, Johnson Central met Ashland with the championship on the line. This time, it was the Black Bears. The Golden Eagles don’t have the same sense of rivalry with Harlan County as they did the Tomcats, but it didn’t matter Friday.
“We talk about it a lot, that it’s kind of like being a thoroughbred racehorse,” Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said. “I tell our kids that when the gate opens or the gun goes off, they come out and they run. That’s what they do. As an athlete, that’s what you have to do. When they whistle, you just have to turn it on. It doesn’t matter who it’s against.”
The Golden Eagles improved to 71-7 against district opponents in their 16 seasons under Matney. Johnson Central has dropped just three district games in the last 14 seasons.
• Fleming County earned its second regular-season district crown in 18 years on Friday night with a 41-0 victory at Pendleton County.
“I’m just happy for our kids,” Panthers coach Bill Spencer said. “I feel like they have exceeded some expectations from outsiders.”
Count Spencer among the football coaches in Kentucky who don’t mind the new intra-district postseason setup, at least as it pertains to this year. Fleming County hosts Lewis County and Harrison County in its final two regular-season games, so as a top seed, the Panthers won’t have to leave Flemingsburg again until Nov. 22, if they get that far.
“It will be great to not have to worry about a long trip the first and second rounds (if we win the first) of the playoffs,” Spencer said.
As for the Wildcats, who have played in a predominantly northeastern Kentucky-based district the last five years — even with Friday’s loss they ended the state’s longest playoff drought when Lewis County was eliminated from postseason contention on Friday. Pendleton County’s first playoff game in a decade will be a rematch with the Panthers in Flemingsburg on Nov. 8.
Four: Micah Adams (East Carter). Adams caught five passes for 110 yards, including a touchdown reception, and had the scoring rush in the third quarter that jump-started the Raiders’ run of 23 straight points to come back from a two-score halftime deficit. He also delivered an interception at the goal line on the final play to preserve East Carter’s 30-29 win at Greenup County.
Three: Bryce Burgess (Greenup County), Nathan Conley (Russell), Austin Evans (Greenup County), JT Garrett (Ashland), Blake Hester (Ashland), Jonathan Maher (Fleming County).
Two: Ethan Cox (Raceland), Jake Gregg (Ashland), Carsen Gulley (Fleming County), Jake Heighton (Raceland), Braden Hicks (East Carter), Conner Hughes (Raceland), Devin Johnson (Johnson Central), Jacob Kelley (Boyd County), Gunnur Lewis (Raceland), Joe Lusby (Boyd County), Dalton Nelson (Bath County), Caleb Rowsey (Raceland), Dawson Witt (East Carter).
One: Malakai Anderson (Russell), Cole Crampton (West Carter), Brandon Davis (Lawrence County), Kaleb Flanery (Fleming County), James Fraley (Bath County), Dalton Frye (Lewis County), Gavin Gibson (West Carter), Jake Headley (Johnson Central), Zach Holtsclaw (East Carter), Ryan Leach (Bath County), Mason Lemaster (Johnson Central), Hunter McCoy (Bath County), Blake McKibben (Fleming County), Orry Perry (West Carter), Ryley Preece (Johnson Central), Cody Rice (Johnson Central), Eli Sammons (Greenup County), Gracin Smith (Fairview), Jacob Underwood (East Carter).
Didn’t report statistics: Morgan County, Paintsville.
Klemme’s NEKY Super Seven
1. Johnson Central (8-0)
2. Ashland (7-1)
3. Russell (6-2)
4. Paintsville (6-2)
5. Raceland (5-3)
6. Fleming County (6-2)
7. East Carter (6-2)
Next two in: West Carter, Greenup County.
Miss it? Here are scores from Friday’s games involving local teams: Bath County 19, Prestonsburg 6; Scott 54, Boyd County 26; Belfry 48, Lawrence County 0; Ironton 49, Coal Grove 12; East Carter 30, Greenup County 29; Johnson Central 56, Harlan County 6; Mason County 59, Lewis County 6; Leslie County 41, Morgan County 8; Paintsville 44, Betsy Layne 0; Fleming County 41, Pendleton County 0; Raceland 69, Fairview 6; Ashland 21, Russell 14; West Carter 37, Martin County 6.
What area quarterback threw for touchdowns on his first three passes Friday night?
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Halftime Prep Talk
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