LOG MOUNTAIN — Call it regional championship week, call it the state quarterfinals, either way only the contenders are left and the pretenders have been sent home as the Kentucky high school playoffs are down to the final eight teams in each class.
For the Bell County Bobcats that means another meeting with Louisville Central Friday night. The Yellow Jackets have won four of the past five Class 3A state championships, they entered the season as the favorites for a fifth and have done nothing to change that perception.
The Jackets are 10-2 with both losses coming against Class 6A teams that are also still playing. They dropped a 27-13 decision at St. Xavier and lost 15-14 at undefeated Pleasure Ridge Park in the regular season finale. Central also has wins over 6A Ballard and Dupont Manual to go along with victories over 4A Louisville Western and 2A DeSales, swept their district and defeated Indiana power F.J. Reitz of Evansville in an early season showcase.
Last year Central ended the Bobcats’ season with a 26-0 win in this same round of the playoffs. While both teams lost talented running backs to graduation and will have different quarterbacks under center, many of the key players return from that game in Louisville.
While the pre-game hype centers around Mountain boys taking on a team from the big city, the stat sheet shows two teams that are both used to controlling the line of scrimmage and winning in the running game.
Bell County (10-2) has outscored their opponents 441-146 while holding a 3435-1467 advantage in rushing yards. Central has outscored their opponents 382-156 and holds a 3139-1507 rushing edge.
“There’s not a whole lot of difference. They still do the same things, they’ve got a system they believe in,” Bell coach Wayne Mills said of the Jackets. “They’re kind of a lot like us in that they’re going to do what they do. Whichever team executes the best and protects the football will have the best chance to win the game.”
The Bobcat ground game, led by senior backs Jonathan Polly and Ryan Collett who have both surpassed 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, face a stiff challenge in the Jacket defense. Central is led by a pair of absolute studs in junior linebackers Donald Styles (92 tackles) and Phillip Francis (55 tackles, two interceptions both returned for touchdowns).
The Jacket ground game is led by senior back Deris Cox with over 1400 yards and 16 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Taeshawn Gibbs has added another 700 yards on the ground and 14 scores.
“Louisville Central is going to bring a lot of speed and athleticism to the Mountains,” Mills said. “We’ve played Bryan Station and Lexington Catholic so we’ve seen a lot of athletes this year and we feel like we’re prepared for that. It will be a fun football game, if you like speed and athleticism Log Mountain will be the place to be Friday night.”
Leading the defensive charge for the Bobcats are senior linebackers Corey Lee (106 tackles) and D.J. Warwick (87 stops) along with a very active rotation along the defensive front in William Elliott, Jonathan Burnett, Joe Jackson, Brandon Spade, Jeffrey Saylor and Dylan Cox.
While Bell County was advancing to the regional championship game with a 35-14 win over LaRue County, Central was struggling with Wayne County. Gibbs was knocked out of that game with a concussion and junior Sydney Tedford hooked up with senior receiver Devonte Yelder for a 60-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 to play to lift the Jackets to a 21-18 win.
During the regular season, LaRue County played Central tough in a 16-8 loss and Bell County made three eary scores stand up in a 21-7 win over Wayne. While it’s a reach to draw too many conclusions from how those games played out, the results do give the Bobcats some hope.
“That’s a common opponent and I think it definitely encourages us. We watched that film and the biggest thing with Wayne County is they just played with great effort and so much determination. That’s something our kids have got to play with and we just want Friday to hurry up and get here,” Mills said.
While Gibbs’ status is in a little bit of question heading into Friday’s game, Bell County has been playing freshman quarterback Peyton Collett since senior Corey Oslonian went down with a ligament tear in his knee in the second game of the year. Other than missing Oslonian, Bell County is healthier than they’ve been at this point in the season in several years.
“Besides the loss of Osi early in the year we’ve been blessed to keep our kids healthy and that’s a key this time of year,” Mills added.
The Bobcats practiced under the lights at Old Bell High Tuesday evening and focused on handling defensive penetration as well as ball security.
“We can’t turn the football over against them, we did that last year and got behind and never could recover. The biggest thing is to secure the football and we’ve just got to will ourselves to win it,” said Mills.
One big factor working in Bell County’s favor is that Friday’s game will be played on Log Mountain. It’s about a four-hour bus ride from Louisville to Pineville and the Bobcats usually perform better in front of a big home crowd.
The game is set for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff and Bell County will be looking to advance to the state semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons.
“This was our goal and to win a regional championship you’ve got to make it to one. We’re here now and we’re going to see what we can do,” Mills said. “Our kids will come ready to play and do their best to represent Bell County High School and this community with everything they’ve got.”
The winner will host either Monroe County or South Warren in the state semifinals next week while Bourbon County visits Mason County and Breathitt County visits Belfry Friday on the other side of the bracket.