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Mountain football battle hymn has championship ring(s)

December 6, 2019 FieldsColumn

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Pikeville players take the field Friday afternoon for the KHSAA Class A finals at Kroger Field. The Panthers beat Paintsville 43-0 for their fifth state title. (KHSAA photo by MATT GOINS)

BY MIKE FIELDS (Dec. 6, 2019)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of mountain football over the past few decades, including Pikeville’s three consecutive state titles under Hillard Howard, Tim Couch’s national record-setting career at Leslie County, and the blossoming of Belfry, Bell County, Breathitt County and Johnson Central into championship programs.

But mine eyes witnessed the zenith of mountain football on Friday at Kroger Field: All four teams in the KHSAA title games hailed from Eastern Kentucky, and one of the matchups featured the two winningest coaches in state history.

Pikeville pounded Paintsville 43-0 to win the Class A championship, and Belfry beat Bell County 30-20 to claim the 3A trophy.

The two games drew more than 16,000 fans to Kroger Field.

Never before in KHSAA playoff history had two mountain teams won state titles on the same day. (In 2015, Pikeville was crowned champ on a Thursday, and Belfry was crowned on a Sunday. In 2016, Belfry claimed a big trophy on a Saturday, and Johnson Central got its hands on the hardware on a Sunday.)

(To give mountain football fans even more reason to thump their chests: Johnson Central has a spot in Saturday’s Class 4A finals.)

“For years the talk was like, well, Eastern Kentucky plays good football in Eastern Kentucky, but they can’t compete on a state level, with the western Kentucky teams or Louisville,” Belfry Coach Philip Haywood said after his Pirates won their seventh title since 2003. 

Pikeville quarterback Isaac McNamee, MVP of the Class A finals, signals the Panthers’ fifth state title.

“But today we had four schools here in the finals, and another one tomorrow. I think that’s a great compliment to our coaches and players.”

Yes, a new seeding format, using the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), enabled these first-ever championship showdowns between mountain teams.

Still, who thought it would ever happen?

Hillard Howard, who guided Pikeville to its three-peat in 1989, is delighted that it did.

“Seeing mountain football get this good is something,” said Howard, who made the trip from his Florida home to watch the Panthers win their fifth title. “Teams from the north and west used to look over teams from Eastern Kentucky then go on to the next one. But they don’t do that anymore. Now they have to beat them to win the championship.”

Howard thinks Pikeville’s then-unprecedented run of three straight titles may have helped prime the pump. “But everybody just started working harder, and Belfry, Breathitt County and Bell County all came on strong about that same time.”

Paintsville has its own football history, thanks to Walter Brugh. He led the Tigers to state runner-up finishes in 1978 and ’85, and was once the winningest coach in state history.

Football was important in Big Sandy country back then, and it still is under Paintsville Coach Joe Chirico, and Pikeville Coach Chris McNamee.

McNamee, who played on the Panthers’ 1987 title team, stressed that the game means a lot to his players.

“These kids love football. They enjoy the discipline and the grind and everything that comes with it,” he said. “That’s rare today in a lot of places, but we’re a tough group in the mountains.”

As McNamee talked to reporters, his son Isaac, Pikeville’s quarterback, was accepting the game’s MVP award after passing for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns. Isaac’s older son Andrew played on the Panthers’ 2015 championship team.

“It’s amazing that me, my brother and my dad now all have (state titles),” Isaac said. “Winning one was something I dreamed of all the time as a kid, and now it’s become a reality.”

Isaac McNamee said mountain teams have proved their doubters wrong.

“We’re very underrated. People overlook us and say we’re just a bunch of rednecks. But I think today we showed we can play football.”

Belfry Coach Philip Haywood and Bell County Coach Dudley Hilton, shown before Friday night’s Class 3A finals. (KHSAA photo by MATT GOINS)

The 3A finals featured a matchup of coaching goliaths: Belfry’s Haywood, the state’s all-time winningest coach (449 victories) vs. Bell County’s Dudley Hilton, who’s second on the all-time win list (393 victories).

Haywood has led the Pirates to seven championships. Hilton has led Bell County to two. (He also won a state title at Bourbon County.)

Haywood and Hilton go back a long way: 44 years. They played each other in their debuts as head coaches.

On Aug. 29, 1975, Prestonsburg played host to Breathitt County. Haywood, 24, was the Blackcats’ rookie coach; Hilton, 27, was the Bobcats’ new boss. (Prestonsburg won 20-6.)

Belfry’s Isaac Dixon ran for 228 yards and 3 TDs to earn MVP honors in the Class 3A finals.

More than four decades later, the two men who have had so much to do with mountain football earning respect, met again with a championship on the line.

Hilton, who has resurrected a half-dozen programs, has done it again since returning to Bell County.

“Three years ago they stuck a fork in us. We were 4-7,” he said.

The Bobcats, who won it all under Hilton in 1991 and 2008, made it back to the finals this year, going undefeated before running up against Belfry.

“The strong just keep getting stronger,” Hilton said of Haywood’s Pirates.

Bell County had no answer for Isaac Dixon, Belfry’s MVP, who ran for 228 yards and 3 TDs.

Bobcats’ quarterback London Stephney did all he could — he threw for 150 yards and rushed for 104 yards and 2 TDs — but it wasn’t enough.

But Hilton recognized the significance of the day when four mountain teams played in the state finals.

“It was great,” he said. “It showed we can all play.”

Glory, glory, hallelujah, to mountain football. 

Belfry celebrated its 7th state title since 2003.

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