The semifinals have been played, and the state championship matchups are set.
Northern Kentucky has two high school football teams still alive. Beechwood will take on Pikeville Thursday night at 7 p.m. in the 1A state championship, while NewCath will play on Sunday at 1 p.m. against Mayfield in the 2A title game.
The Enquirer will have its usual official fall sports awards issue after the playoffs are over, but we had Northern Kentucky preps contributor Rick Broering reflect on the last 15 weeks of action and come up with some informal superlatives of his own.
These aren’t heavily researched or stats-based awards, rather just an eyeball test of a high school football enthusiast. In other words, these were the most fun things to watch while covering games this year.
Most exciting atmosphere:
Simon Kenton’s Chlorine Menefee Stadium vs. Ryle – Simon Kenton’s fans took their gameday support to another level this year. Chlorine Menefee Stadium was rocking on several occasions, but for a regular season game the matchup against Ryle had a playoff vibe. The game was ridiculously fast-paced (165 combined plays) with big plays on both sides during the first half, and you could hear the crowd living and dying with each hard hit or long gain on either side.
Scott 28-18 over Ashland Blazer – Ashland Blazer finished the regular season ranked fifth in the statewide AP poll, and other than Simon Kenton the Tomcats were the best team Scott faced all season. Having captured only the second postseason win in school history a week earlier in come from behind fashion, the Eagles didn’t panic when they fell behind 18-0 in the first quarter. They proceeded to shut Ashland out for the rest of the game, thanks in part to two interceptions by senior Jordan Velasquez, and overtook the Tomcats in the third quarter. Scott did all of this without 4A District 7 player of the year Deondre Pleasant, who was injured the week before against Rowan County.
Cooper 27-21 over Ryle – After Cooper lost to Simon Kenton 26-7 in the middle of September, the matchup between Ryle and Simon Kenton later in the season looked to be a battle for the top spot in Northern Kentucky. Only, Cooper popped Ryle in a 6A District 5 matchup a few weeks later on October 9, before the Raiders got the chance to face the Pioneers. The Jaguars scored two big touchdowns in the final eight minutes, as sophomore Byron Brown returned a kickoff 80 yards for the go-ahead score and then senior quarterback Nathan Brown found Hendrix for a 17-yard touchdown to put the game away.
NewCath 41-0 over Lloyd – This is when everyone started taking NewCath seriously as a state title contender this season. After needing two fourth quarter touchdown runs from senior Jake Smith to sneak past Lloyd 29-26 when these teams met in the regular season, the Thoroughbreds dominated from start to finish in the postseason rematch with a regional title on the line. The Breds scored three defensive touchdowns in the first quarter, and four total for the game.
Most entertaining passers:
Tanner Morgan, Ryle – Morgan has a huge arm, and no team gave their quarterback more responsibility or freedom than Ryle gave him this year. He threw the ball over 31 times per game, and did a tremendous job of checking plays at the line of scrimmage after reading the defense.
Kyle Fieger, Beechwood – Fieger has already broke former Highlands and Cincinnati quarterback Gino Guidugli’s Northern Kentucky career passing record. He’s also in striking distance of Guidugli’s career completions and passing yardage records. No one is more efficient than Fieger, as the Tigers quarterback has posted these ridiculous numbers while only throwing 14 times per game in Beechwood’s run-heavy attack.
Nathan Brown, Cooper – Brown moved to quarterback before the start of his senior season, and the move paid big dividends for head coach Randy Borchers and the Jaguars. An impressive athlete, Brown proved to be instinctual in the pocket, using his legs to evade pressure and keep plays alive before launching downfield. He also did a tremendous job of taking care of the football for a first year quarterback with only six interceptions.
Most entertaining rushers:
Jacob Smith, NewCath – Smith had defenses packing eight and nine players in the box, focused on stopping him for most of the season. It didn’t matter. His combination of toughness, lateral quickness and vision allows him to turn broken plays into gains as well as any player in the area.
Dillon Powell, Simon Kenton – Powell was also the focal point of his team’s run-heavy read-option attack. The Pioneers had one of the best offensive lines in the state, and he did a tremendous job of using those blockers by being patient and waiting for creases in the defense. The versatile back was as effective running between the tackles as he was making guys miss in space.
Roberto London, Scott – London was the perfect back for Scott’s Single Wing offense. He was big and tough enough to be the workhorse in an offense that only passed the ball eight times per game, but he also provided explosive big-play ability without making the Eagles throw the ball. His clutch go-ahead touchdown run with 45 seconds left in the first round of the playoffs to beat Rowan County was as memorable a play as I saw this season.
Most entertaining receivers:
Brett Slusher, Beechwood – Slusher is one of the top overall players in Northern Kentucky period, but as receiver his skill-set is a nightmare for opposing defenses to matchup against. A linebacker on defense, his size and strength is too much for defensive backs, but he’s also typically the fastest player on the field.
Dante Hendrix, Cooper – Hendrix was used more than any receiver in Northern Kentucky, but what made his season most impressive was how often he came up with the big play. He averaged over 21 yards per reception as he and Brown seemed to be able to hook up for the big play whenever the Jags needed it most.
Charles Gaines, Lloyd
– Like Slusher, Gaines is in the conversation for best overall player in Northern Kentucky as he’s also a beast on defense. On offense, his versatility was huge for the Juggernauts. His size made him a big possession target for short and mid-range throws, but he also had the explosive athleticism to torch secondaries. He was clutch in his team’s biggest games.