When Beechwood head coach Noel Rash has a rare moment to take a step back during the chaotic week leading up to a state championship, he enjoys watching his players soak up the excitement.
“They eat it up,” Rash said. “Their reactions and trying to let them enjoy it… that’s what I enjoy more than anything else is just enjoying the spirit of the guys. It’s a great time in their lives.”
Beechwood has a chance to capture its 12th state title, and the third in Rash’s tenure Thursday night when the Tigers face-off with Pikeville at 7 p.m. CST (8 p.m. locally) in the Kentucky 1A state championship at Western Kentucky University. The last time Beechwood played in a state final was in 2008 when it beat Hazard, 14-7.
The six-year span without winning a state title is tied for the longest in school history. There was also a six-year title drought in between the Tigers’ first championship in 1984 and their second in 1991. Their opponent in that ’91 finals was Pikeville, marking the Panthers’ last appearance in a title game.
Pikeville won state titles in 1987, ’88 and ’89.
“With Beechwood on a drought of being in the finals, I assume there’s a little more energy behind this one,” Rash said. “I think what you realize more than anything is how special these are. Other than that, it’s the same buzz as always.”
The key to beating Pikeville is to contain its potent rushing attack, led by senior Daric Pugh with 1,828 yards and 33 touchdowns. The Panthers are averaging 47.6 points and 386.3 yards per game, with 280.7 yards coming on the ground. They’ve only attempted 8.1 passes per game. Sophomore quarterback Wyatt Battaile has completed 68 of 82 (82.9 percent) passes on the year for 1,162 yards with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Beechwood’s defense has yielded an average of 14.6 points and 153.1 rushing yards to opponents this season.
“You better stop the run, definitely, but their quarterback is extremely efficient, too,” Rash said. “He never turns it over and rarely throws an incompletion. Their defense runs to the ball as well as any team we’ve played all year, and they’ve got a chip. There are several different aspects to them. They’re not a one-way street.”
On the other side of the ball, Beechwood has been without leading rusher Ethan Stringer, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second round of the postseason, but the Tigers still found a way to rush for 228 yards and five touchdowns last week in the win over Russellville.
The coaching staff has made adjustments to keep the offense running efficiently, including sliding leading receiver Brett Slusher into the backfield to take carries in Stringer’s absence. Slusher rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns last week, while also catching three passes for 50 yards.
Pikeville’s defense has held opponents to 12.9 points and 145.9 yards per game.
Beechwood has a reputation for being a perennially strong rushing team, and while that’s still a staple of the Tigers’ offense, this year they’re more balanced. With senior quarterback Kyle Fieger leading them under center, they’re averaging 46.6 points and 406.4 yards per game, with 222.1 coming on the ground and 184.3 through the air.
Fieger has thrown for 2,590 yards and 38 touchdowns with only three interceptions while completing 70.1 percent of his passes. Slusher has hauled in 54 passes for 1,112 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Rash didn’t shy away from state title talk when discussing his team’s potential in the preseason, but he stressed that there was a long way to go before another championship would be a possibility. Now, just one win away from title No. 12, he says this year’s team has more than reached his expectations in terms of its development.
“They’ve gone beyond that, individually and together,” Rash said. “We’re doing this thing with Ethan (Stringer) out, and our middle linebacker/fullback went out on the second series last week. To do what they’re doing, is a great testament to our kids and our coaching staff. Our coaches have done a tremendous job of getting them in the right places, but it always comes back to the kids having to execute. For them to be 13-1 and sitting in this position is a great testament to their want to. It’s been pretty incredible.”
Class A Football Championship
Who: Beechwood vs. Pikeville
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: L.T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green
Records: Beechwood 13-1, Pikeville 12-2