Title defense: Rebels begin run for another state championship Saturday

Published 3:41 pm Thursday, August 19, 2021

The beat coming from the next room is music to Justin Haddix’s ears.

It’s the music that blares through every football locker room as players prepare for practice, and it seeps through the cinder block wall that separates the Boyle County locker room from the coach’s office.

It is a sign that things are at least a little closer to normal than they were a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic imperiled the high school football season. The threat of canceled games and tighter restrictions still exists as long as the pandemic lingers, but for now things feel much better than a year ago.

A year ago, players across Kentucky couldn’t use their own locker rooms before or after practices as part of required COVID protocols, so the coach’s office was a quieter place. Now, the music is playing again at Boyle.

“They were showing up 20 minutes before practice packing their stuff like it’s peewee football,” Haddix said. “It’s something that you don’t take for granted, being around your buddies. I love hearing them going. We’ve got music going, and it’s great. I feel like football is the ultimate team game, and that’s what it’s about, playing for your brothers.”

The Rebels came together last year in their first season under Haddix to win the Class 4A championship, and their coach hopes a return to some semblance of normalcy will create an even stronger bond as they begin their bid to repeat.

“I think it’s the coaches being around and being able to do things, and just the camaraderie of being a team,” Haddix said. “You forget how much a team really means, being a part of something. That’s a big thing, the team aspect, being a part of something special and all working towards a common goal.”

The goal is what the goal has been at Boyle for many years: to develop a team capable of winning a championship, then to win it. That has happened nine times since 1999, and there is every reason to believe it can happen again.

Half of the offensive and defensive starting lineups from Boyle’s overtime victory over Franklin County in last season’s 4A final are back, including some of the best players in the state at their positions.

The Rebels will test themselves against one of the most challenging schedules in school history, beginning Saturday when they open the season against Tates Creek in the Little Caesars Fort Harrod Bowl at Mercer County.

They have done things to prepare for their second season under Haddix that they could not do in the first: spring practice, summer workouts, camp at Jabez. As long as COVID restrictions allow, there will be Thursday night team meals, Friday night tailgates and more fans in the stands.

In short, Haddix will get his first taste of the full Boyle football experience.

“This year is going to be new to me, some things we’re doing,” he said.

Twelve players who were seniors in 2020 have moved on, but one returned. Quarterback Jagger Gillis, who threw for 2,037 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushed for 415 yards and 12 TDs, is one of six players who are taking a supplemental school year made possible under a state law passed in response to the pandemic’s impact on education.

Gillis returns to lead an offense that helped Boyle rank No. 2 in the state last year in both points per game (47.6) and scoring margin (36.5), and he’ll move from safety to linebacker on a defense that allowed 11.1 points and only 45 rushing yards per game.

Haddix calls Gills the type of “old-school football player” whom he’d like to have at every position.

“I want 11 football players out there. Football’s a physical, tough game, and whatever position you play, you’ve got to play it that way if you want to be successful,” Haddix said. “Just having him on the field brings a lot. He loves the game, and he loves the guys around him. And I think he’s just going to continue to get better.”

The Rebels’ other returning two-way starter is senior Cole Lanter, who was Boyle’s leading receiver last season with 38 catches for 647 yards and nine TDs and a starter at cornerback. Lanter is a versatile player who will contribute at wide receiver, running back, cornerback, and safety.

“Those are the type of kids that I enjoy coaching — everybody does — and that you want on your football team,” Haddix said.

Two starters return to the offensive line: Zach Mason, a senior who started at left guard last year, and Andrew Hardwick, a junior who was at right tackle.

Other players who could be catching passes from Gillis include seniors Hayden Kelly and Cash Logan, and sophomore Keenan Stewart, who caught a combined five passes last season; senior Luke Imfeld, who comes from the basketball team; juniors Will Alexander and Jakei Tarter; and junior Sage Dawson, another rushing and receiving threat who was Danville’s starting quarterback last year.

Haddix said junior Dalton Stone, another player taking a supplemental year, and junior John Rahbany have emerged at running back, and sophomore Avery Bodner should also get some carries along with Lanter, Dawson and Gillis.

Defense will again be a strength for Boyle, with seven starters back on that side of the ball.

“We start everything with our defense,” Haddix said. “We play a lot of good teams, and your defense has to be your constant. Offense is going to have some up-and-down games, but your defense always has to be there.”

Haddix said experience will be valuable for a unit that allowed only 45 rushing yards per game last year, but he said the Rebels’ formidable run defense must continue to improve.

“You either get better or you get worse, you don’t stay the same,” he said. “They’ve done a great job this offseason, and it all starts with stopping the run. Make teams one-dimensional and it makes it a little easier to call defense and play defense.”

The returning starters include Stone, last year’s second-leading tackler, at middle linebacker, and junior Tommy Ziesmer, who was No. 2 in tackles for loss, at defensive end. Seniors Daulton Peetz and Nathaniel Rush return at defensive tackle.

“Dalton brings a lot of leadership to our football team on defense,” Haddix said. “Daulton Peetz is tough to block, and Tommy Ziesmer, obviously, is a bear to do anything with, and Nate Rush is, too. We feel really good about our defensive line.”

Lanter and Kelly return to the secondary and Gillis moves up to linebacker. They will likely be joined by Bodner, Dawson, and senior Collin Tiller, among others.

Senior Jackson Smith, the standout kicker-punter who has committed to Kentucky, is also in line to start at linebacker, Haddix said.

Smith, whose 23-yard field goal in overtime was the difference in Boyle’s win over Franklin, made 54 of 58 extra-point attempts and four of six field goal attempts and averaged 45 yards per punt last season. Haddix said it would be easy to take those assets for granted, but he doesn’t.

“The kicking and punting, the field position game is big time. When you’re playing big games, when you’re playing people that can really play, the field position, getting points every time, and any time you’re making their offense drive 75 yards every time to score, that really helps your defense.”

There are changes on the coaching staff, the most notable of which is the promotion of Travis Burns to defensive coordinator. Burns also ran the Rebels’ weight program in the offseason.

And there are four new assistants on what has become a younger staff, including Boone Goldsmith, a former Boyle quarterback who was on the Lincoln County staff last year; and Kyle Singleton, Danville’s offensive coordinator last season. There also are two coaches who worked under Haddix at Corbin: Jackson Arnett, a former head coach at Barren County who was most recently the offensive coordinator at Ballard; and Nick Mills, who coached defensive backs at Southwestern last year.

Haddix hasn’t been here that long himself — only about a year and a half — but he said already feels right at home.

“It feels like I’ve been here a while. Working with these coaches and getting to work with these kids, I feel like everything just fit in,” he said.

He said he enjoys being part of a school and community where football is important, where people stop him in stores to ask him how the team is doing.

“That’s what makes it special to me,” Haddix said. “It is important. Football’s important here, this school’s important and it’s a great school all the way around.”

Boyle opens its season Saturday against a Tates Creek team that was winless last season but reached the Class 6A semifinals in 2019. There are five 5A or 6A schools on the 10-game slate.

The Rebels’ schedule includes one state champion (Bowling Green), one finalist (Lexington Christian), one semifinalist (Frederick Douglass), one regional finalist (North Hardin) and a team that went 7-1 before being forced to forfeit a playoff game due to COVID (Henderson County).

“It’s a challenging schedule for our kids, and we made sure to tell them that every day when we were working out this winter,” Haddix said. “Playing the speed and the quality of coaching in those type of teams is really going to help us later on in the playoffs. I could care less about going undefeated; I just want to win that last game. You find out what you’ve got to work on, what you need to do, when you play good people early.”

Boyle County schedule

Aug. 21 — x-Tates Creek, 5:00

Aug. 28 — LEXINGTON CHRISTIAN, 7:30

Sept. 3 — DANVILLE, 7:30

Sept. 10 — at Henderson County, 8:30

Sept. 17 — BOWLING GREEN, 7:00

Sept. 24 — at North Hardin, 7:30

Oct. 8 — LEXINGTON CATHOLIC, 7:30

Oct. 15 — at Anderson County, 7:30

Oct. 22 — BOURBON COUNTY, 7:30

Oct. 29 — at Frederick Douglass, 7:30

x-at Mercer County