FORT MITCHELL, Ky. -- Beechwood football players know what’s at stake Friday night when the Tigers (13-1) hook up with Hazard (12-2) at Houchens Industries–L.T. Smith Stadium on the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
There is no shortage of motivation, even for a Kentucky Class 1-A state football final.
For instance, the 12th state title in program history would be a magical experience for the close-knit Beechwood community.
“For how small we are, they’re always at every game,” said Beechwood junior quarterback Brayden Burch. “You wouldn’t think a lot of people would come for a 1-A school, but our stands are filled up and we have people up and down the track. Our whole community is here for us. I think we owe it to them to bring it back here to Fort Mitchell.”
Then there is the storied history of the Beechwood football program and ending a span of eight years without a championship. The last of Beechwood’s 11 state titles came in 2008.
“So many Beechwood teams in the past have won state and have had great seasons,” senior running back/defensive back Aiden Justice said. “We just try to live up to that and honor them.”
But most of all, they have each other to win for. Many were at WKU last December when the Tigers fell to Pikeville, 42-28, in the 2015 Class 1-A state final. A win Friday would ease a lot of the pain from that loss.
“It would feel great,” Justice said. “We went last year and we know how it feels to lose in the state finals. It’s not a good feeling. All the seniors are really hungry this year to bring home the state title because our coaches and all the players really deserve it.”
Tigers players have been focused all season on getting back to this game. It’s been all about hard work, commitment and making sacrifices to be part of something special, according to Beechwood coach Noel Rash.
“These kids playing for each other is probably the most special thing I’ve witnessed,” Rash said.
To earn that 12th title, the Tigers will have to contend with a bigger team in Hazard. The Bulldogs have won seven straight and will try to impose their power-football will on Beechwood from the start. Hazard will line up with one or two tight ends and often have three backs in the backfield. In short, they’re going to run the ball right at the Tigers with junior running back Cory Smith, who is averaging nearly 200 yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Bailey Blair has also been solid under center.
Beechwood will counter with a fast and aggressive defense that gets to the ball in a hurry.
“We’re tenacious,” Rash said. “Relentless. Sometimes we get out of position and when we do, we’ve got the speed and the tenacity to get back to where we belong.”
The Tigers’ offense will also try to establish the run against Hazard and to use its speed to make up for the lack of size.
“A lot of people say we’re really small, but we’re always small,” Burch said. “We’re starting like three sophomores on our line and I think our average weight for our line is less than 200. So, people have been doubting our size all year. We’re just faster than everybody else.”
Justice has carried 156 times for 1,074 yards and 17 touchdowns, and has caught a team high 29 passes for 582 yards and seven more touchdowns to lead a Beechwood offense averaging 42 points per game.
“Everybody thinks he’s just fast,” Burch said. “But Aiden is one of the smartest football players that we have on the team. He’s always watching film and he’s always talking with our coach about what he thinks we can do. He’s always reading the defenses. He knows where he is going to go before the play even starts.”
Burch has completed 135 of 210 passes -- nearly 65 percent -- for 2,245 yards and 26 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Senior Garrett Ratliff (25 catches), junior Daniel Mescher (23) and sophomore Logan Castleman (20) are Burch’s other three favorite targets.
Junior James Davis has added 827 yards on 112 carries and 12 touchdowns.
“We have to wear them down and run and pass a lot,” Justice said. “I think the running game will open up.”
Friday will be all about winning each play and taking advantage of the opportunity the Tigers have.
“It’s not about how good you played the week before or the year before,” Rash said. “It’s about this game at this moment at this time. In fact, it’s about each individual play. I look at it as the present and don’t do much for the past. You have to take advantage of what is in front of you.”