RACELAND Chris McNamee pointed at Raceland’s postgame huddle while his opposite number, Rams coach Michael Salmons, addressed his team.
“I know that team right there, they’ll get a lot better,” Pikeville’s coach said Saturday night as a steady rain fell on Ram Stadium. “Coach Salmons does a great job, and they’ve got some good players.”
Raceland believes McNamee is right. But on this evening, the Panthers defended their Class A state championship with a 28-7 victory, their first at Raceland since 1956.
“We schedule good competition — maybe that’s an understatement — great competition to get to where you want to be,” Salmons said. “(Pikeville is) where we want to be. We have knocked on that door. We’re gonna continue to knock on it until we knock it down.
“We will learn from tonight and be better from playing essentially the highest level of competition that we could.”
After a slow start borne from the Class A rivals feeling each other out in a season opener delayed three weeks and one day by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pikeville outrushed Raceland 225 yards to 78 on an identical number of carries — 33, not counting Panthers quarterback Isaac McNamee’s kneel-down to end it.
”We gotta be able to run the ball somewhere like (Pikeville) ran the ball tonight to play at the highest level,” Salmons said.
Both teams returned proven quarterbacks, but their backfields thrust new players into starring roles.
Panthers sophomore Blake Birchfield did that best. He ran for negative-4 yards last season as a freshman but broke out Saturday to the tune of 151 yards and two touchdowns.
Birchfield was one of Pikeville’s 18 new starters out of the 22 offensive and defensive spots.
“I was proud of their effort,” McNamee said. “We knew coming in that things wouldn’t look as good as they could have under normal circumstances. ... Made a lot of mistakes, but just lined up and played the next play.”
Salmons cited Birchfield’s 53-yard first-quarter TD run that opened the scoring and a “back-breaker” 16-play, 99-yard second-frame Panthers drive that took 8:17 off the clock, capped by Nate Collins’s 3-yard scoring run, as evidence of Pikeville’s dominance in the ground game.
“Their running backs really hurt us tonight,” Salmons said. “Obviously we were worried about (Isaac) McNamee and (speedy receiver Zac) Lockhart, and they did enough damage to us as well.
“Those are things that we’re gonna have to get better at. We’ve gotta be able to stop the run and run the ball to advance. We know that. Those are very, very key points for us moving forward to get better at.”
Pikeville showed quick-strike ability, too, as McNamee found Lockhart for a 72-yard TD on the first play of a third-quarter drive. And Birchfield reached paydirt for the second time from 41 yards out with 3:50 remaining.
Raceland averted a shutout when Jake Heighton hit Conner Hughes, who eluded a potential tackler and ran 54 yards to the house with 2:44 to go.
The Rams got the ball back when Cole Conlon fell on a Panthers fumble at the Pikeville 28-yard line, and Raceland got to the Panthers’ 14 in the closing moments before a Heighton pass ricocheted off a receiver’s hands and was intercepted.
“I think the last couple series were indicative of who we are right now,” Salmons said. “We’re trying to make those plays, and sometimes we can’t get out of our own way. Those are plays that our guys are gonna make six, eight, 10 weeks from now.”
Heighton passed for 143 yards, a touchdown and a pick. He completed 10 of 17 passes in the second half for 106 yards after a 5-of-10 showing for 37 yards before intermission.
“Obviously we had a few too many drops, and Jake will get better as he goes,” Salmons said. “I thought in the second half, Jake was a whole lot better than what he was in the first half. That’s some new faces we’re breaking in (at receiver), some new timing, some new schemes that we’re looking at.”
Hughes hauled in five passes for 65 yards and Landyn Newman snared five receptions for 48 yards.
Lockhart caught six passes for 114 yards for the Panthers (1-0). The teams combined for seven turnovers — three of which were Raceland (0-1) fumbles and two of which were Pikeville interceptions.
The game featured two lightning delays totaling 1 hour and 17 minutes. Rain showed up during the second delay, two plays into the second half, and stuck around the rest of the evening.
Pikeville snapped a four-game skid in Raceland, which included the 2017 state semifinals, in winning its eighth straight season opener. Raceland’s 14-game winning streak in lidlifters concluded.
PIKEVILLE 8 7 7 6 — 28
RACELAND 0 0 0 7 — 7
P — Blake Birchfield 53 run (Isaac McNamee run), 3:12
P — Nate Collins 3 run (Trey Hancock kick), 2:01
P — Zac Lockhart 72 pass from McNamee (Hancock kick), 4:25
P — Birchfield 41 run (run fails), 3:50
R — Conner Hughes 54 pass from Jake Heighton (Peyton Ison kick), 2:44
First Downs 11 13
Rushes-Yards 34-225 33-78
Comp-Att-Int 10-20-2 15-27-1
Passing Yards 137 143
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 4-3
Punts-Avg. 3-38.3 5-38.0
Penalties-Yards 8-85 1-0
Pikeville rushing: Birchfield 13-151, Rogers 5-29, Collins 9-27, McNamee 3-22, Caudill 2-1, Team 2-(-5).
Raceland rushing: Newman 9-28, Jak. Heighton 15-21, Farrow 5-20, Meade 3-8, Jax. Heighton 1-1.
Pikeville passing: I. McNamee 10 of 20 for 137 yards, 2 interceptions.
Raceland passing: Jak. Heighton 15 of 27 for 143 yards, 1 interception.
Pikeville receiving: Lockhart 6-114, Birchfield 2-14, Hensley 1-8, Lowe 1-1.
Raceland receiving: Hughes 5-65, Newman 5-48, Bowling 3-19, Gallion 2-11.
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