Johnson Central celebrates first football title
BY MIKE FIELDS
BOWLING GREEN — It ain’t over till it’s over, they say, but Johnson Central football coach Jim Matney seemed pretty sure his Golden Eagles were winging their way toward championship glory when he giddily jumped up and down along the sidelines after his team took a 36-0 lead over Franklin-Simpson late in the first half of Sunday’s Russell Athletic/KHSAA Class 4A finals.
That meant there would be a running clock the entire second half on this cold, damp evening, and Johnson Central and its fans wouldn’t have to wait as long to start celebrating the county’s first state football title.
For the fifth straight week of the playoffs, Johnson Central mercy-ruled its opponent into submission. The Eagles wound up pile-driving Franklin-Simpson 48-0 in the finale at WKU’s L.T. Smith Stadium.
“This means everything to our kids,” Matney said. “I’m very thankful, very humbled. This is important to our county and for everybody that ever put on a black-and-gold jersey.”
Johnson Central rolled up 403 yards, 363 of those coming on a punishing ground attack led by Blake Gamble (90 yards) and Joe Jackson (85 yards, 3 touchdowns).
Riley Preece threw for 59 yards, including a 38-yard TD strike to Geordan Blanton.
But the Eagles’ defense, led by Nathaniel Wilcox, Josh Ervin and Devin Johnson, was even more impressive as it completely smothered Franklin-Simpson. The previously unbeaten Wildcats managed just 18 yards and one first down.
Matney said that Johnson Central’s defensive scheme was hatched a year ago — the night after the injury-depleted Eagles lost to South Warren 36-6 in the 4A finals.
“Last year we just felt we embarrassed ourselves. We felt like we let the mountains down, and we always want to represent the mountains well. We want to show the rest of the state and the rest of the world that mountain kids are good, hard-working, honest, determined kids.”
Johnson Central’s football team showed that kind of character throughout this season as it won 14 of 15 games. The only loss was 21-16 to 3A champ Belfry.
The Eagles were untouchable in the postseason. They demolished Scott 54-7, Greenup County 55-8, Ashland Blazer 51-0 and Wayne County 51-0 on their way to Bowling Green.
“It was just one of those times that everything steamrolled,” Matney said.
Matney, whose mountain roots are deep (he played at Belfry and started his coaching career as an assistant there) deserves a heap of credit for persevering and guiding Johnson Central to the top.
He took over the Eagles in 2004 after spending 20 years building Sheldon Clark into a more-than-respectable program.
He also brought to Johnson Central a gritty toughness that reflected his stature as a state champion wrestling coach. (He led Sheldon Clark to state titles in 1994 and ’95).
Do wrestlers make good football players?
“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’ve got about 8 wrestlers who start for us, and one of them is the best-kept secret in the state — (senior wide receiver/free safety) Geordan Blanton. He’s a state champion wrestler, and he led the baseball team to the state (tournament). He’s a phenomenal athlete, but nobody knows about him.
“But I think it was good that we were flying under the radar all season.”
Winning a state title was a long slog for Johnson Central, which lost in the playoffs to eventual state champs Covington Catholic (2006) and Highlands (2008, ’09, ’10, ’11) before breaking through to get to Bowling Green last year.
That didn’t turn out so well, but the return trip yesterday couldn’t have gone better.
“This is a wonderful place to be,” said Matney, who has a 133-31 record in 13 years with the Eagles. “Mountain people are wonderful people, and I’m just so happy tonight. I’m very thankful, and very proud and appreciative of our kids.”
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