Central Coach Ty Scroggins called for one of his players to step up and make the play. U’Kari Baker answered the call for the Yellowjackets.
Baker’s 14-yard touchdown reception with less than a minute remaining gave host Central the lead for good against Elizabethtown and the Yellowjackets came up with an interception on the Panthers’ last possession to rally for the 21-14 win in the Class 3-A west state semifinal on Friday night.
“He said we just needed to make a play and I said, ‘Coach, I can make that play for you,'” Baker said of his response to Scroggins’ plea to his team in the proceeding timeout. “I said, ‘Just throw it up and I can go get it.’”
And for the second time on the night, Baker did just that for the Yellowjackets, who move on to play top-ranked Belfry in next week’s state championship game at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
“For the coaching staff, this is something special. We’ve been here 10 years now and this will be our seventh state championship game,” Scroggin said. “You get to play one more week.”
GALLERY | Central vs. Elizabethtown
Baker’s second touchdown grab — his first one was a 35-yarder down Central’s sideline to give the Yellowjackets a 6-0 lead on the opening possession of the second half — finally did in a plucky bunch of Panthers.
“We were just a play or two away,” said veteran Elizabethtown coach Mark Brown, who was attempting to guide his third program to the state finals after winning a championship with Nelson County and earning a runner-up finish with John Hardin. “That’s the way it goes. We knew they were going to throw the ball long and we knew we needed to compete for it, but with bigger and taller athletes, they just go up over us and catch it.”
Brown didn’t expect the Panthers to be in this game at all with just three senior starters back from last year. It didn’t help that Elizabethtown started the season with a thud, falling to East Jessamine in a bowl game.
“As a coaching staff, we told them that we’re as proud as we can be about what all they accomplished,” Brown said of his on-field postgame speech to his team. “They played hard with 30 varsity kids without sprinkling in some freshmen there. They have to play both ways against teams like this doing that and it’s just remarkable that they’ve been able to stay healthy and keep hustling.”
Scroggins didn’t expect Central to keep hanging around after the Yellowjackets turned over the ball three times, dug themselves in holes with more than 10 penalties and allowed some big plays on special teams. Central also missed an extra point and a field goal.
“We played horrible,” Scroggins said. “Initially, some of our kids were worried about the cold and their mind wasn’t in the game and we were making some silly mistakes.”
One mistake, the missed extra point, allowed the Panthers to take a lead as Jay Becherer ran for a 3-yard touchdown five plays after his 80-yard kickoff return and Casey Roberts’ point-after try pushed Elizabethtown ahead 7-6.
After the teams traded punts, Central never trailed again as Corey Johnson Jr. went almost untouched up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown and Davon Hall scored the two-point conversion on a rush in which he was hit in the backfield and escaped.
“This game was crazy,” said Johnson, who had 169 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries.
“In the first half we started off slow and at halftime we got together and knew we had to execute and make plays.”
Third Quarter: C – U’Kari Baker 65 pass from James Simpson (kick failed), 9:55; E – Jay Becherer 3 run (Casey Roberts kick), 7:05; Fourth Quarter: C – Corey Johnson 6 run (Davon Hall run), 10:36; E – Derek Smith 65 pass from Tyler Durbin (Roberts kick), 10:22; C – Baker 14 pass from Simpson (Sebastian Francisco kick), 0:31.9