RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. – Brett Slusher’s jersey was the muddiest of all the Tigers after a hard-fought game on the grass at Ken Barrett Field on Friday night.
The Beechwood senior standout led the Tigers on both ends of the ball in a KHSAA Class 1A state semifinal, lifting Beechwood (13-1) to a 34-25 win over Russellville (11-3). The Tigers (13-1) advance to the KHSAA state championship game, facing Pikeville, which defeated Paintsville on Friday, next Thursday night at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The Tigers will be in the state finals for the first time since 2008. Slusher fought back tears as he reflected on what the win meant.
“The team hung in there tonight,” Slusher said. “I’ve never been so proud of a group of guys in my life. We needed this tough win and we ended the drought. We did it. We’re coming back.”
Slusher rushed for more than 100 yards in the game and had three key first-half receptions for 50 yards. At times, he played quarterback, taking a short shotgun snap in the Pistol formation, a new wrinkle in Beechwood’s offense.
Slusher, one of the state’s top receivers with 51 catches for 1,062 yards and 19 TDs coming in, had to become more versatile after the Tigers lost leading rusher Ethan Stringer to injury early in the playoffs.
“After Ethan went down, I knew I was going to have to contribute more than I already do,” Slusher said. “I knew I had to grow up big time and that’s what I had to do. It was 11 men every play in the white jerseys and I’m proud of everyone.”
Perennial playoff nemesis Mayfield is now in another class after eliminating the Tigers in the semifinals five of the previous six seasons, but Beechwood still had to contend with the pesky Panthers of Russellville Friday night. The Panthers came in with three state titles to their credit but none since 1990, and they challenged the Tigers who came more than four hours to this southern Kentucky city, arriving two hours before kickoff.
“It’s incredible,” said Beechwood head coach Noel Rash. “We got so used to going (to state). When both of us got switched to the West, we both had trouble getting past Joe (Morris) and his Mayfield boys. It’s been six years, which is a long time for us. I’m happy for the kids.”
The game started out as a track meet for most of the first half. Beechwood received the ball first. After Kyle Fieger threw a long pass incomplete, the Tigers kept the ball on the ground and advanced 69 yards on 10 plays, split between Slusher, Trevor Soward and Logan Castleman. Slusher carried in from 12 yards out, and Mario German’s PAT made it 7-0.
Russellville came right back with its pair of 1,000-yard rushers who had combined for more than 2,500 yards through 13 games, and a well-run option offense that relied heavily on misdirection. MJ Jones had a 16-yard run, and on the fourth play of the drive, Josh Bigbee outran the defense down his left sideline for a 58-yard TD. The PAT tied it at 7 with 6:04 to go in the first quarter.
The Tigers scored on their next drive. Fieger completed four passes to four different receivers, totaling 51 yards, before taking it in himself on the 10th play of the drive. Fieger rolled out to his left and reversed field, eventually finding the end zone on the opposite side of the field. German’s PAT made it 14-7 with 1:13 to go in the first period.
The Panthers took over at their own 36 and marched 64 yards, scoring on a sneak by quarterback Jaylyn McMurry. On the PAT, McMurry took the snap for the kick and immediately took off on what appeared to be a designed fake. The Tigers brought him down well short of the goal line and it remained 14-13 with 7:30 to go in the half. That play became more important as the game went on.
The Tigers marched right back down the field on the ensuing drive. Fieger started off with a 12-yard pass to Aiden Justice then a strike to Slusher for 25. Two plays later, Fieger threw into the end zone to Justice, and he drew a pass-interference penalty that put the Tigers at the Panthers 17. An eight-yard pass from Fieger to Justice moved the Tigers to the 5. Slusher scored two plays later, and German’s PAT made it 21-13 with 4:55 to go in the half.
Russellville’s next drive became the first fruitless one of the game for either team following a Beechwood sack and then a botched snap on the next play. Russellville punted. Beechwood drove to its own 40 before time ran out in the half.
Russellville took the second-half kickoff and scored right away on a 63-yard run by Bigbee. The Panthers went for two and failed as several Tigers swarmed the runner back at the 10-yard line, and it remained 21-19.
“We had them in a long situation and we thought they were going to do something else,” Rash said. “You can’t overcommit to anything with them, if you do, they’re going to get you.”
The teams traded punts until Beechwood took over at its 35 in the final minute of the third period. Fieger completed a 25-yard pass to Lucas Benson to the Russellville 40. Slusher rushed for two yards and was shaken up, forcing him to leave the field. On the next play, Justice burst off left tackle and outran the defense for a 38-yard touchdown. German’s PAT made it a two-score game at 28-19 with 18 seconds left in the third period.
The Tigers defense stiffened after that, forcing two consecutive drives to end in punts. Down 28-19 early in the fourth period, Russellville elected to go for it on fourth-and-5 from its own 31. McMurry lofted a long jump-ball pass and two Tigers leaped to knock it down.
“We made a little bit of an adjustment at halftime,” Rash said. “Coach (John) Myers does a fantastic job of scheming against your defense. We went balanced and had three guys back. The will and heart of this team was able to keep them from scoring again.”
The Tigers made the Panthers pay for that gamble right away as Slusher took it in with nine minutes to play in the game. The PAT failed and it was 15-point game at 34-19.
Russellville started the comeback by driving down and scoring 4:04 to play in the game. The Panthers elected to go for two again, and once again the Tigers stopped them well short of the goal line and it remained a two-score game at 34-25.
Beechwood took over at its own 28. Slusher gained eight yards on the first play and the Tigers ran out most of the clock and kept the Panthers at bay.
Fieger completed 10-of-12 passes in the first half for 109 yards and had a couple of completions in the second half. He entered the game with 419 completions for 7,211 career yards, chasing Gino Guidugli’s all-time Northern Kentucky marks of 445 and 7,516. He has a chance to surpass the former Highlands and University of Cincinnati standout in both categories in the state final.
Beechwood 14 7 7 6 – 34
Russellville 7 6 6 0 – 25
B-Slusher 12 run (German kick)
R-Bigbee 58 run (Watkins kick)
B-Fieger 10 run (German kick)
R-McMurry 1 run (run failed)
B-Slusher 4 run (German kick)
R-Bigbee 63 run (run failed)
B-Justice 38 run (German kick)
B-Slusher 6 run (kick failed)
R-Thomas 6 run (run failed)
Records: Beechwood 13-1, Russellville 11-3.