On Cloud 9: Rebels win state championship 31-28 in overtime;
See a large slideshow of images from Friday’s game
Published 1:50 am Saturday, December 19, 2020
By MIKE MARSEE
LEXINGTON — A little more than a year ago, Boyle County left Kroger Field under a dark cloud. On Friday night, the Rebels floated out of that same stadium on cloud nine.
Three hundred and seventy-eight days after a heartbreaking defeat in the state finals, the Rebels redeemed themselves by returning to championship form.
Boyle outlasted Franklin County for a 31-28 victory in the Class 4A championship, giving the school its ninth state title and giving the players who were part of last season’s loss the win they wanted more than perhaps anything else in the world.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Boyle running back Will McDaniel said. “I couldn’t think of anything greater. It was on my mind when we were down by seven and driving, I was like, ‘I don’t want to go out with that same feeling again.’”
A 23-yard field goal by Jackson Smith and a fourth-down deflection by Luke Sheperson in overtime gave Boyle (11-0) a victory in a thrilling title game that was by far its toughest test of a season in which it won all but one game with considerable ease.
The Rebels never trailed in any of their previous games this season, but they never led in this game until Smith’s field goal in overtime.
McDaniel, who was named the game’s most valuable player after rushing for 195 yards and two touchdowns, said it was a “mentally challenging” game, but he said the degree of difficulty made the victory that much more rewarding.
“It makes it so much sweeter,” he said. “I feel like a 2K player right now.”
And Justin Haddix, the first-year coach who was hired last winter to lead a program that has become accustomed to chasing championships, he was proud of the way the Rebels rose to the challenge.
“We talk about our kids and about the fight in them, and it was never give up,” Haddix said.
“We believed in them and kept the energy … . Things weren’t going their way, and they continued to fight.”
So much has happened since Boyle lost to Johnson Central 21-20 in the 2019 finals. The coach who built a dynasty retired, and he was replaced by a young, ambitious coach who blended his energy with his players’ hunger.
Less than two months later, a worldwide pandemic upended all of our lives and threatened to wipe out the high school football season.
The Rebels survived a season like no other, adhering to previously unimaginable protocols and avoiding the COVID-19 outbreaks that sidelined some teams.
Through it all, the memory of that loss was with Boyle’s players. Every. Single. Day.
“One of my longtime role models and my middle school coach sent me a text message two days after we lost that state championship last year. He said, ‘The ball’s in your court. You can choose how you respond to this,’” McDaniel said. “I’ve read that message probably 30 times in this past year. It’s been on my mind every single day. And I think that’s been my motivation to keep getting up, work hard and get here.”
“We’ve been working since January for this, and it’s every day nonstop, and it’s the only thing that we think about,” Smith added. “Winning this game really ices it all off, and it’s the best feeling in the world.”
It could easily have been something closer to the feeling the Rebels felt last year. Franklin (9-2) moved the ball downfield in a way few of Boyle’s opponents have, and the Flyers’ defense kept Boyle’s passing game in check — that is, until the Rebels struck for the longest play of the night.
Franklin led 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 28-21 before Boyle tied the game for the final time on Coleman Clark’s 59-yard touchdown reception with 3:51 remaining.
Clark caught a pass from Jagger Gillis along the right sideline near the Franklin 30-yard line, changed direction to lose two defenders and found a clear path to paydirt to tie the game at 28-all.
Less than a minute later, the Rebels got a chance to win when Avery Bodner intercepted a pass from Franklin’s Nick Broyles at the Flyers’ 39-yard line with 3:07 to play.
They got as far as the 21, but a 44-yard field goal attempt by Smith was blocked by Franklin’s Blair Tate with 26 seconds left, and the Flyers were content to take a knee and send the game to overtime.
As Haddix returned to the Boyle sideline following the coin toss, he shouted to his players, “I like us! I like us! I like us!” and he said later he felt good about where the Rebels stood after four quarters.
“I just felt like we were still strong. I didn’t feel like we were tired, we weren’t worn out. We were still there,” he said. “And that goes back to our conditioning all year. I feel like every time we played, we wore the other team down, and I feel like at times we did that to them.”
Clark said the players shared that confidence.
“We just never gave up the faith. That’s one of the biggest things about Boyle County football: We have all the pride in the world,” he said. “And coach Haddix just kept telling us it wasn’t over, it wasn’t over.
“All the seniors came together and said we weren’t going to leave this field with any regrets, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Boyle got the ball at the 10-yard line first but gained only 4 yards in three plays, then sent Smith out for a 23-yard field goal that gave the Rebels their first lead.
Then came Franklin’s turn from the 10. After losing 5 yards on first down, the Flyers gained 11 yards on third-and-goal when Fred Farrier caught a ball over the middle that Boyle players and coaches said hit the ground first.
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 4, the Flyers eschewed a field goal attempt that would have forced a second overtime. Instead, Broyles rolled to his right and threw a pass toward Kaden Moorman, who had his hand up in the end zone.
Sheperson, moving to his left and watching Broyles all the way, leaped at the 1-yard line and got his right hand on the ball, knocking it away to ignite the Rebels’ celebration.
“College uprights are a little tighter (than high school uprights, and we’ve been strong on offense all year,” Franklin coach Eddie James told The (Frankfort) State-Journal about the decision not to kick a field goal. “Justin (Haddix) said it was the perfect play call. His kid just made a great play.”
Franklin made the biggest plays early in the game. The Flyers sliced through Boyle’s defense on their first possession, as Broyles completed four of six passes for 46 yards and Moorman scored on a 5-yard run.
Boyle failed to score on its first two series before McDaniel tied the game at 7-all with a 4-yard touchdown run about a minute into the second quarter.
McDaniel added a 3-yard TD run later in the period, but the Rebels were stopped at the Franklin 3 on the final play of the first half and turned the ball over on downs at the Franklin 46 on its first series of the second half.
They tied the game at 21-all with 10:52 remaining, on a 4-yard TD run by Gillis, who moments earlier drew the Flyers offsides on fourth-and-2.
A 36-yard catch by Clark was the longest play of that series, but it was on that drive that the Rebels also began to firmly establish the run.
“We started running the rock and leaning on our offensive line,” Haddix said.
McDaniel had 111 yards on 20 carries in the second half and overtime.
“I just have the best O-line in the state,” he said. “They’re some dogs … and they deserve the credit as much as I do.”
“Man, it was just pure grit and determination,” left tackle Caleb Edmiston said. “We wanted it so bad. After coming up short last year, we knew we had to get it in, so we were determined to run the ball.
“We made a few little adjustments, a few changes in the blocking schemes, and we just ran the ball as hard as we could.”
Gillis ran for 85 yards, and he threw for 123 yards in the second half and overtime and 168 overall on 11-of-17 passing.
Boyle got the ball back less than a minute after Gillis’ touchdown and drove from their own 40 to the Franklin 1 before his rush attempt on fourth down came up about a foot short.
The Flyers covered 99 yards in only five plays to score on a 6-yard run by Moorman with 5:44 to play. The Rebels matched that score some two minutes later, then made the big plays that left them feeling so much different than they did a year ago.
“This is the complete opposite,” Edmiston said with a wide smile. “I love this so much.”