Rebels are ready for Friday playoff matchup

Contributing Writer

Will Boyle County be ready to play Friday night? You bet.

The Rebels are one win away from returning to the state finals, but they have played only one postseason game to this point. In fact, when they take the field at Rebel Stadium for their Class 4A semifinal against Hopkinsville, they will have played only one game in the previous 37 days.

That’s a lot of practice time with very little payoff.

“As a kid and as a competitor, you want to play,” Boyle coach Justin Haddix said. “We want to continue to move on in the playoffs, but as a competitor you want to play football. Nobody wants to just go out and practice all the time.”

Even in a season in which the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined so many teams, Boyle (9-0) is in an unusual position. Of the 24 semifinalists in the KHSAA playoffs, the Rebels are the only team that has advanced three times in the five-round playoff bracket despite playing only once. The Rebels sat out the first and third rounds as their opponents opted out or were forced to withdraw, as Rowan County did last week two days before its scheduled third-round game at Boyle.

So they keep practicing, which Haddix said is better than the alternative.

“We would rather do this than not play,” he said.

In fact, the Boyle coach said he urged his players after practice Sunday to make the most of every practice session.

“That’s what we told them: ‘The most we could have would be nine more practices. Don’t let a practice go by that you’re not getting better,’” Haddix said.

After the Rowan game was canceled last week, Boyle’s practices focused on staying in game shape and maintaining timing and sharpness, Haddix said.

In addition, the Rebels also worked on each of their possible opponents before they knew which one they would play this week.

“For two or three days, we went against a little bit of all of the three teams we could play,” Haddix said.

Now the Rebels have honed in on Hopkinsville (7-2), a team whose fortunes took a turn for the better after two district losses.

The Tigers lost their first two District 4A-1 games to Calloway County and Logan County by a combined score of 45-14, but they avenged both of those losses with road wins in the first two rounds of the playoffs, 21-17 over Calloway and 42-20 over Logan, to win the district title as a No. 3 seed. That led to a 14-10 win over John Hardin in the regional finals last week.

Hoptown played only six regular-season games, and Haddix said it has shown the kind of improvement in its postseason run that teams often show in the second half of the season.

“Think how many reps that they would normally have right now. You’re just now getting in your groove,” he said.

The Tigers relied on their defense in their win over John Hardin, and defense has been their most consistent unit this season. They have allowed 16.3 points per game, and while they have given up 259 yards per game, they held John Hardin to 163.

“Their defense is really multiple. They give you a lot of different looks,” Haddix said. “They’re big up front; they’ve got some 260-, 270-pounders on the defensive line. They’re aggressive, and they’ve got good skill players who can limit big plays for them. We’re going to have our hands full.”

Hoptown’s top performers on defense include Ventrall Baker, who at 5-7 and 145 pounds has a team-high 37 tackles and five tackles for loss, and Dejuan Mercer, who has three interceptions for a team that has forced 14 turnovers.

One of the Tigers’ top playmakers on offense is Reece Jesse, a 6-3, 200-pound wide receiver who caught six passes for 121 yards and one TD in the win over John Hardin. Jesse has broken virtually all of the school’s receiving records and has received scholarship offers from a handful of Power 5 schools including Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.

Quarterback Treyvon Jefferson was 16 for 25 for 262 yards and one TD last week. The Tigers ran for only 56 of their 318 yards last week, but running back Jayden Dillard is also an offense threat, along with Baker, Mercer and receiver Ryan Myers.

“They have some weapons,” Haddix said.

Hoptown averages 26.3 points and 279 yards per game.

Boyle averages 43.4 points and 402 yards and has allowed 9.2 points and 157 yards per game.

Running back Will McDaniel surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in all-purpose yards two weeks ago — he has 1,108 — with 151 rushing yards and 68 receiving yards in the Rebels’ win over Lexington Catholic.

Quarterback Jagger Gillis, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more against LexCath, is approaching 2,000 yards of total offense with 1,637 passing yards and 281 rushing yards.

On defense, Boyle’s top four tacklers are Tommy Ziesmer (40), Coleman Clark (39), Luke Sheperson (39) and Dalton Stone (38). Ziesmer has a team-high 13 tackles for loss, and Clark has 10.

This will be Boyle’s fourth consecutive trip to the semifinals. The Rebels defeated Elizabethtown in a 2017 semifinal, lost to Haddix’s Corbin team in 2018 and defeated Central last season.

Boyle has played in the semifinal round 12 times since 1999, winning 10 of those games.

Three of those wins came over Hopkinsville during the Rebels’ run of five consecutive championships and six straight trips to the state finals from 1999 to 2004. Boyle beat the Tigers in in 2001, ’02 and ’04 to reach the finals; the two teams have not met since.

Hoptown has not been back to the semifinals since 2004, but Haddix said he doesn’t think the difference in experience in the late rounds of the playoffs is an edge for Boyle.

“I don’t really put a whole lot of stock in that,” he said. “Every team is different, every team’s got a completely different makeup.”

If Boyle advances, it would play the winner of the Franklin County-Johnson Central game for the Class 4A championship Dec. 18 in Lexington.