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Déjà vu All Over Again?

In 2017 class 1A, the Beechwood Tigers repeated as champions. Are we going to see another repeat in 2018? The Tigers enter 2018 as strong favorites to win another title. But there are always twists and turns. Teams make unexpected gains and become contenders. There are several teams in 1A this year that could be that unexpected title contender. Most of those are on the east side of the state and will battle each other for a trip to Lexington.

Leading the strong contenders list is Pikeville, who defeated Beechwood in the 2015 title game. In the two years since that title game loss, Beechwood has only lost three games - two to 2017 5A state champion Covington Catholic and the other was to 6A top ten Simon Kenton. As we look for someone who might be able to dethrone the Tigers in 2018, the Pikeville Panthers head the list. They have everyone back from a young team that grew up during 2017 and fell just short of a title game appearance.

Not far behind Pikeville is Raceland. The Rams are focused on returning to the title game and trying to gain some revenge for the lopsided loss the Tigers put on them in the 2017 title game. Hazard and Paintsville round out the top contenders from the east. Both of those teams have high level talent on their rosters. If they can fill some gaps, either of them could be the east side representative.

Next in our rankings come the top west side contenders. Campbellsville and Crittenden County are both on the rise. Crittenden County will likely be the top scoring offense in 1A this season with 3 top performing skill players returning for their senior seasons. But like last year, the Rockets will have their hands full trying to get past Campbellsville.

The next four teams in our rankings preview look to be a notch or two below the top seven, but don't count any of these teams out. They have a history of winning in their programs. Each has players they can build around and try to make the move up our rankings as the season progresses.

Class 1A looks to have more depth of good teams this year than we have seen in recent years. It would not be a surprise to see several of the teams in our second ten show up in the top ten as the year progresses. But when it is all said and done, everyone is chasing the two time defending champion Beechwood Tigers. The contenders have their work cut out for them if they want to stop a three-peat.

The Top Ten

1. Beechwood (12-2; 1A State Champion) – On the face of it, the Tigers look to have lost a lot. And let’s not diminish things, they did lose some excellent players. QB Brayden Burch was a poised leader of back to back champion teams. K/DB/WR Daniel Mescher was Mr. Everything and most outstanding player in the 2017 1A championship game. RB James Davis was outstanding. CB Elijah McKinney led the state in interceptions as a junior. Yet, despite losing that talent, the Tigers have that much talent returning making them the heavy favorite for another title.

Sr. RB/WR/DB Logan Castleman has started for the Tigers since his freshman year and has already committed to D1 Wright St. in baseball. Sr. lineman Adam Derry has multiple D1 offers and committed to Middle Tennessee. Sr. lineman Dayton Baugh also has multiple D1 offers and has committed to West Point. Sr. C Noah Fisher is a 3 year starter who has been named to area all star teams since his sophomore season. Yes, there is talent returning. The Tigers will have size and be very strong in the trenches.

Topping it all off, the question mark at QB now looks to be filled by So. Cam Hergott who is projecting out as a potential D1 recruit. Hergott spent a good portion of the summer at college camps including some high level invitation only camps. Jr. RB/LB Josh Derry was a strong contributor last year and will take on an even bigger role this year.

Beechwood played the toughest schedule in 1A in 2017 and that should be the case again in 2018 with 6A power Simon Kenton, defending 5A champion Covington Catholic and 3A state runner-up Corbin headlining the 2018 opponents. Beechwood has the beef up front to compete well with those teams. Here come the Tigers again in 2018.

2. Pikeville (8-5; Semifinals Runner-up) - There may not have been a better story in 1A in 2017 than the Pikeville Panthers. Coach Chris McNamee did an outstanding job taking a very young group and getting them within a hair of making a trip to the state title game.

As the summer unfolded in 2017, Pikeville had a challenge in front of them. They had very few seniors and knew they had to work a young roster into shape quickly. Compounding things, one of the top QB’s in the state, Sr. QB Wyatt Battaile, was injured and most certainly out for most if not all of the season. The Panthers also learned other key returning Sr. Evan Rhodes was not playing football. It looked like it was going to be major rebuilding, and it was.

Facing a very challenging schedule, the Panthers lost 4 of their first 5 games. In the last of four straight losses though, Coach McNamee made a change that turned around the season. Against district rival Hazard, Coach McNamee turned to Jr. Connor Roberts at QB. Roberts threw for 171 yards and ran for 122 and Hazard had to battle their way to a 38-26 win. Pikeville found a QB and against a less challenging schedule ran off 6 straight wins to a playoff rematch versus Hazard. In that rematch the Panthers pulled off the upset of Hazard to get to the state semifinals. Then they almost pulled another upset in the semifinals, barely missing a title game trip with a 17-14 loss to Raceland.

In 2018, all those youngsters that grew up in the 2017 season are back. They have a season of experience and a successful playoff run to build on. Sr. RB Zach Roberts went for over 1,100 yards in 2017. Dual threat QB Connor Roberts returns after sparking last year’s mid season turnaround.

The defense will be led by returning linebackers, Sr. Jesse Sparks and Jr. Kaden Caudill. Sr. WR/DB Christian Billiter, Jr. WR/DB Jackson Hensley and Jr. WR/DB Seth Pugh are returning playmakers on defense and receiving the ball on the offensive side.

Pikeville is back. Don’t be surprised if you see them back in a title game.

3. Raceland Rams (10-5; 1A State Runner-up) – It often happens when you don’t expect it. After so many really good teams and players fell short of playing in a state championship game, the 2017 Rams surprised even many of their own fans by making it to that long sought after title game. Now that they have been there, it becomes a more real and achievable goal.

Could the Rams get back to Lexington again in 2018? There are obstacles to overcome. The foundation of success for the 2017 Rams was their defense. The Rams lose seven defensive starters including DE Tyus Ferguson, leading tackler LB Justin Whitmoyer and S Cam Webb. The 2018 defense will feature Sr. LB Nolan Smith, Sr. LB Will Hale, Sr. S Dalton Adkins and Jr. CB Gunnur Lewis. This is a core you can build a defense around but they will need help from the new starters if they are going to match the 2017 defense.

On the offensive side the Rams will need to find a new QB. This will be a key for success in big games in 2018. The Rams discovered in the championship game last year that they need more out of their passing game to win a title. There will be no issues with the running game. Seniors Judd Adkins and Hunter Lacks form a powerful duo and they will have some biguns up front plowing the way. Jr. T Noah Davidson goes over 300 pounds and Sr. G Devin Willett is just a shade smaller. Also returning is Jr. T Braydon Shore.

This Rams team has the talent to return to the title game. They should have the confidence following last season. They posted that title game final score of 41-0 in their locker room for motivation to get back to Lexington and wipe that score off the wall. The Rams always schedule tough opponents. They will be ready and a force to reckon with at playoff time. They are very capable of making a return trip to Lexington in December.

4. Hazard (9-3; Regional Runner-up) – The Hazard Bulldogs came into 2017 picked by many to be the east side representative in the title game. They returned a lot of talent led by RB Corey Smith, who was within striking distance of the top of the KHSAA career yardage record book. Alas, over recent years the Bulldogs get more than their fair share of injuries and Smith went down with a season ending knee injury early in the year. Shortly thereafter and unbelievably Smith’s twin brother Austin, a key starter on the line, joined Corey on the season ending injury list.

Despite the major losses due to injuries, the Bulldogs had plenty of talent to keep the winning ways going – they just looked more beatable. After losing to Somerset in game three with Smith going down, the Bulldogs bounced back with three straight wins, including a huge win over district rival Pikeville. But Pikeville sprung a playoff upset on Hazard in the regional title game to end the Bulldogs’ season short of expectations.

Back for a third year at the helm is Sr. QB Bailey Blair. Blair went to the title game as a sophomore starter and wants nothing more than to return there in his senior campaign. He is a dual threat QB who put the team on his back offensively in 2017 when Smith went down. Blair had just under 2,000 yards passing in 2017 and 15 TD passes. Fellow three year starter Skylar Pelfrey will be Blair’s top returning target at WR. Jr. Reece Fletcher showed promise at RB last year. The line returns nearly intact with only one starter lost to graduation.

Fletcher and Pelfrey were leading tacklers on defense last year. Sr. LB Andy Baker also returns as a two way player and leading tackler. In total there are seven starters returning on the defensive side but the Bulldogs need to replace a couple of top players on the defensive line.

Hazard will be a top contender. If they can find a RB to take some of the load off of Blair and balance the attack, the Bulldogs could earn their second trip in three years to the title game.

5. Paintsville (11-2; Regional Runner-up) – It was looking like it would happen. Paintsville has been right there around the top of 1A knocking on that championship game door the last three years. Entering their regional championship playoff game versus Raceland, Paintsville had only one loss to a highly ranked Hurricane WV team. The Tigers had wins over Pikeville, Hazard and Raceland and were solidly ranked at number two in 1A. Then it happened again. Playoff disappointment as Raceland turned the tables to post an upset win over Paintsville. The championship game drought is now at 32 years for Paintsville. Is this the year they get over the hump?

For those outside the program, expectations for 2018 are not as high as we have seen in recent years. There are more question marks. There isn’t an obvious D1 talent leading the way as we saw with Tyrese Allen the last couple years and Kash Daniel before that. That could change. Jr. LB/RB Jaylyn Allen, Tyrese’s brother, looks the part and may take that talented leader role.

There may be a bit of a dilemma at QB. So. Jake Hyden did a capable job as a freshman starter in 2017. However, Jr. Josh McClurg has transferred in from Lexington Christian and he too is an experienced starting QB for a top program. Those are the kind of choices you like being forced to make if you are the coach. Either way, the offense looks to have solid, experienced leadership at QB. Whoever the QB is, Sr. James Allen should be a nice returning target. Look for Jr. John Phelps to make an impact running the ball.

There is a lot to replace on the defensive side with Tyrese Allen, Chris Allen, Dalton Daniels, and Tyler Couch among the key starters lost to graduation. Jaylyn and James Allen will be key returning starters along with Christian Keeton, Brandon Richmond, Isiah Sexton and John Phelps.

The Paintsville Tigers have been on a roll. The program has a lot of positives. There are more challenges this year but the program looks to be in position to reload, not rebuild.

6. Campbellsville (7-7; Semifinals Runner-up) – Campbellsville fought injury issues for a couple years which made success difficult despite talent on the roster. The silver lining with the injuries was young players got experience. Finally, last year they managed to stay healthy and the results showed. It took a few games to get everything in sync. In fact, the Eagles were just 2-5 when they started putting everything together. Still, despite winning three of their next four, a weak schedule caused doubt about their improvement. A 50-26 win over Russellville in the second round of the playoffs served notice that the improvement was real. Then the Eagles, led by Sr. Devonte Cubit, ran roughshod over Crittenden County in the regional championship. State champion Beechwood ended the Eagles’ season with a thud in the state semifinals, but it was a great playoff run for Campbellsville and laid the foundation for 2018.

The loss of Devonte Cubit is a big one. He was outstanding on both sides of the ball. But there are plenty of playmakers returning. So. QB Arren Hash is back after starting as a freshman and throwing for over 1,700 yards. He is impressive and shows a lot of potential. His top WR Jr. Malachi Corley is back along with talented Sr. WR DeaSean VanCleave. Expected to take over at RB for Cubit is Sr. Charlie Pettigrew.

With a 27 man roster, those players mentioned above will be keys on defense also. LB’s Sr. Tristan Johnson, Sr. Dakota Reardon and Jr. Braden Paige are tackling leaders returning from last year. Anchoring the line are Sr. Lane Bottoms and Jr. Devon Reardon.

Once again, the key with a short roster is staying healthy. If the Eagles are able to do that, look for a big season from an experienced and talented team.

7. Crittenden County (8-5; Regional Runner-up) – Crittenden County will look different this year. For the first time in 27 years, Al Starnes will not be on the sidelines as head coach. Coach Starnes went out on a solid season and left the cupboard full for his successor, Rockets alumnus Sean Thompson, Starnes’ assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.

What an offense the Rockets should be in 2018. The 2017 Rockets were one of the most potent offenses in 1A, averaging 39 points a game. Sr. QB Hunter Boone threw for 2,603 yards and 32 TD’s in 2017. Sr. WR Ethan Dossett is the top returning receiver in 1A with 70 receptions for 1,273 yards and 13 TD’s last year. If that isn’t enough, Sr. RB Devon Nesbitt rushed for 1,289 yards in 2017.

However, if the defense doesn’t improve, the Rockets are going to need all that firepower and more to make a run in the playoffs. The 2017 Rockets allowed more points than any other winning team in 1A. The good news is many of the top tacklers from last year’s defense return. So. LB Tyler Boone came on in a big way last year and was leading the team in tackles weekly by the end of the season. Other key returning defenders are Sr. DL Sean O’Leary, So. LB Braxton Winders and So. LB Caden McAlister. As you can see there were some freshmen making plays in 2017. The Rockets are counting on that experience and growth to lead the defense.

Game 3 versus Caldwell County will be a measuring stick for the 2018 Rockets. If Crittenden County wants to show they are capable of being a serious threat in 1A, they will need to show well in that game. If you like scoring and offense, the Rockets are a team to follow in 2018.

8. Williamsburg (7-4; lost in round 1 to Pikeville) – Since their heartbreaking loss in the 2014 title game, the Yellow Jackets’ seasons have followed the same pattern. They get off to a slow start against the tougher part of their schedule, go on a winning streak against the less challenging opponents and finish with an early exit in the playoffs when they face another top 1A team. This year the Yellow Jackets have the potential to break that pattern.

The biggest hurdle will be replacing QB Alec Poore, who was arguably the top QB in 1A in 2017, throwing for over 2,800 yards and rushing for over 500. Replacing that player and production is a huge hill to climb. The Yellow Jackets are hoping Jr. Dalton Ponder can step in at QB and fill some of the void. Ponder is athletic and has been a solid starter for Williamsburg at WR. In the Williamsburg pass happy offense, he will need to learn fast in the transition to the throwing side of the passing game. Sr. WR Eli Mattingly is the top returning receiver in 1A and will be critical in helping make the move to QB smooth for Ponder.

Williamsburg is a very experienced team. It is that experience that gets them this number 8 pre-season ranking. Most of their starters return on both sides of the ball. There is a deep 50 man roster to pull from. Sr. LB Hunter Brown and Sr. LB Cody Maxey are the defensive leaders. They need to help the Williamsburg defense be more productive if the Yellow Jackets are to break their recent win loss pattern in 2018.

We will find out quickly if this 2018 team is ready to take a step up. The schedule once again has some tough opponents early. Paintsville, Frankfort and Ludlow are all in the first half of the schedule. If Williamsburg doesn’t win more of these early games, the Yellow Jackets may have their hands full holding off an improving Lynn Camp for the district title.

9. Frankfort (8-5; Regional Runner-up) – Frankfort had a rebound season in 2017. After posting back to back losing seasons in 2015-16, the Panthers got back on the winning side of things with a 7-5 record. That is movement in the right direction for a program that was a perennial winner. Still, it was a roller coaster ride of a season. There was a nice win over Louisville Holy Cross and a hard fought one TD loss to a very strong Kentucky Country Day team. Then there was a loss to an Owen County team that the Panthers definitely should have beaten. But, it was a good step back to winning football.

Building on that success, there is optimism in the program that they are back to their winning ways. A nice group of senior leaders and a large freshman group add to the positive vibe. However, the roster is still thin in numbers, meaning players playing a lot snaps and injuries can sidetrack success.

The loss of four year starter Tremayne Jones is big as is losing starting QB Holt Hammons. The senior leaders counted on to lead the way this year are DaJuan Davis, John Tillman, Aaron Mitchell, Jevon Bush and Noah Forkner. Coach Foley may play these guys in different positions as he did last year. Tillman is an outstanding multi-sport athlete and will be the QB, replacing Hammons. The Panthers expect big things from the 6'6" Tillman leading the offense. Look for Davis to get most of the snaps at RB. Bush and Mitchell should primarily play WR. The defensive leader is Forkner along with Davis. Look for all these players to be key playmakers on both sides of the ball.

It is a numbers game for the Panthers. Keep these key players healthy and on the field, get some help from the youngsters and success should follow. A healthy Frankfort team should best last year’s seven win season and challenge Louisville Holy Cross for the district title.

10. Paris (9-2; Lost in round 1 to Raceland) – Like several other of our top ten teams, Paris lost some very good players to graduation, but they have some very talented players still on their roster to carry on the winning.

The big losses for Paris are QB Aaron Maggard and WR Eric Johnson. The big weapon for the Greyhounds is Jr. RB Matthew Barber. Barber has blazing speed and averaged over 10 yards per carry in 2017. The Greyhounds picked up a talented transfer in Sr. Adam Renfro and they have a nice passing target returning in Jr. WR Jamaun Clark. If the Greyhounds can find a QB who can throw the ball effectively enough to keep defenses honest, they have the makings of a potent offense.

The Greyhounds are a senior dominated team. You will find several of those at the top of the tackle counts on defense. Seniors Justin Richardson, Jackson Livingood, Michael Jackson and Tyreeq Nebbit are names to look for on the defense.

Head Coach Brian Washington has done an outstanding job turning around the program and leading the Greyhounds since becoming head coach in 2012, posting a 49-21 record. This team has the potential to be one of his best.

Knocking on the top ten door ...

11. Louisville Holy Cross (8-5; Regional Runner-up) – Over the years, it always seems like Louisville Holy Cross has plenty of beef at the line of scrimmage. This year they have outdone it. Heralded Kiyaunta Goodwin, all 6’7’ 370 pounds of him surprised many by choosing to play his high school football at Holy Cross. Goodwin hasn’t set foot in high school yet but he already has ten D1 offers, including an offer from Alabama. Goodwin is an impressive young man off the field as well with a strong interest in band and robotics engineering. His story will be one to follow over the next four years.

With Goodwin anchoring the offensive line, there should be running room. The question is who will that running back be. Three year standout RB/LB Mario Convenuto graduated and took his schools to Morehead St. Jr. Luke Davis is the front runner to replace Convenuto but So. Lex Thomas may earn his way into some carries also. Sr. Jarren McDonald, a three year starter, returns at QB. On the defensive side, Sr. DB Gavin Foushee was a ball hawk with eight interceptions in 2017.

The Cougars posted nice wins last year over Paris and Ludlow and fought their way into the 1A top ten by the end of the season. Holy Cross has a strong group of experienced starters returning. The battle between the Cougars and Frankfort Panthers for the district title is going to be a good one. If you are looking for a dark horse team that could jump up our rankings, keep a watch on the Cougars.

12. Ludlow (8-3; Lost in round 1 to Holy Cross) – It was a special season for the Ludlow Panthers in 2017. They hitched their wagon to one of the top players in 1A, Justin Blackburn, and leaped into the 1A top 10. It was a tough ending though as the Panthers dropped their last two games to Paris and then in round one of the playoffs to Louisville Holy Cross.

As good as Blackburn was, Ludlow had other weapons and a couple of those are back in 2018. Blackburn produced over 3,300 yards rushing and passing. Sr. RB Sean Stratton, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year, and Jr. QB Ian Vallandingham will try to reproduce those numbers in 2018. Ten of their top fifteen players return so look for the Panthers to once again knock on the door of the 1A top 10.

13. Russellville (7-5; Lost in round 2 to Campbellsville) - Like Crittenden County, Russellville has hired one of their own star alumni to take the head coaching reigns from a successful predecessor. Mikey Benton played at Russellville and then at UK. He was the defensive coordinator last year and was on staff the past five years under John Myers, who had a very successful 14 year run as head coach before changing jobs to an administrative position at Glasgow this year.

Coach Benton is bringing a big change to the Panthers in 2018. Russellville was known for their wing T offense under Myers, but Benton is changing the offense to the spread. It could be a good fit with Russellville’s roster never lacking for speed. Second year starter, Sr. QB Jacob Naylor, is working hard to learn the new offense. He will be backed by returning Sr. RB/LB Edward Barber. Benton will be counting on that experience to lead the team through this year’s program transition. Keep an eye on the Panthers. They could move back up into their usual top 10 ranking quickly.

14. Lynn Camp (8-4; Lost in round 2 to Hazard) – It has been a steady march forward to success for Lynn Camp over the past three seasons. The Wildcats capped their 8-4 season with a first round playoff win over Phelps. This year the program looks to take another step forward.

There is excellent senior leadership on this team in RB/S Dalton Cook, FB/DE Tracy Fee, FB/LB David Griffith and QB/DB Eric Mitchell. Cook rushed for 1,322 yards and 18 TD’s in 2017. The offense is run dominated and was number two in rushing yards in 1A in 2017.

Don’t underestimate the Wildcats. The schedule will once again not pose much of a challenge, but Lynn Camp has some players. They posted a serious threat to Williamsburg for the district title last year losing 40-32, and this year they are focused on winning their district. With Cook and his fellow seniors leading the way, Lynn Camp is in position for another successful season.

15. Bracken County (9-3; Lost in round 2 to Paintsville) - Sr. RB Tad Fisher is the top returning running back in 1A after rushing for 1,606 yards and 19 TD’s in 2017. The challenge for the Polar Bears is who is going to create the gaps for Fisher in 2018. With virtually a whole new line coming in, it is tough to project what this offense will be able to do. Sr. QB Trey Brausch also returns. Bracken County has the skill players to have offensive success, but do they have enough up front?

It has been a great program turn around for Bracken County over the past few years. From a winless team in 2014 with people questioning why they should even show up for a playoff game versus Beechwood, to 9-3 and a playoff win in 2017 – it is quite a story and another good example of why teams should persevere and that they can accomplish a lot even when things look very bleak.

This is a challenging transition year for the program. The roster is dominated by sophomores who are going to need to grow up fast. If those youngsters follow the leadership of Fisher and Brausch and hang tough, the Polar Bears will firmly establish the program on solid footing and continued success.

Looking to surprise us …

16. Bishop Brossart (5-6; Lost in round 1 to Raceland) – The Mustangs return a top notch QB, Sr. Tyler MacDonald. He threw for 2,229 yards with 20 TD’s last year. MacDonald will miss one of the top WR in 1A as Bryce Donnelly has graduated. There are a lot of seniors on the roster including top returning defenders Nathan Bezold and Mason Dennis. With all the seniors, Bishop Brossart is certainly a team that could have more success than what we see looking at it on paper in the pre-season.

17. Kentucky Country Day (11-2; Regional runner-up to Beechwood) – Lifson, Leonard, Diaz, Robinson, Minor, Scott, Ellis, Thomas, Smith … wow, what a group of seniors. Eight of Kentucky Country Day's thirteen seniors have moved on to play college football. Their legacy of winning will be remembered for years at Kentucky Country Day. If not for the powerhouse Beechwood, that group could very well have been state champions. But they and their fellow seniors have graduated. Sr. RB/S Blake Caldwell, Sr. Hunter Bates, Sr. David Satterly and new QB Jr. Dorion Heard will look to reload, not rebuild, in 2018. With an entirely new offensive line, that will be a challenge. We know so little about who the new players will be that it is hard to predict success. We also know that programs that have experienced high success tend to carry over that success. We will see if that proves true and a depleted Kentucky Country Day surprises us in 2018.

18. Phelps (5-5; Lost in round 1 to Lynn Camp) – The Phelps Hornets are another fun 1A story of a program brought back from the brink of shutting down to success. Coach David Jones has done a great job in his 3 years as head coach and has the Hornets hungry for more. Virtually everyone is back for Phelps with key seniors being QB/S Garrett Clevinger, RB/LB Seth Elkins and RB Brandon Turnmire. That returning experience sets the stage for more success and a potential surprise to the upside from the Hornets in 2018.

19. Nicholas County (4-7; Lost in round 1 to Paintsville) – The potential for a surprise to the upside for Nicholas County centers on talented returning Sr. QB Isaac Fryman. Fryman played all over the field in 2017, getting snaps at RB, WR and QB. This season the reports are that Nicholas County is going to a spread offense to take advantage of Fryman’s talent. Like Russellville, that will be a big change from previous years’ run focused offense. Sr. RB/LB Jacob Sexton was a defensive standout last year. With the new offense and Fryman and Sexton, Nicholas County has the makings of a surprise story in 2018.

20. Fairview (4-7; Lost in round 1 to Bracken County) - We have one of our themes in 1A football – an alumnus becomes the head coach - Crittenden County, Russellville and add Fairview. New head coach Brett Cooksey is a 2005 Fairview graduate and former starting QB for three winning years. He is also the son of Fairview’s winningest coach, Rex Cooksey who will be joining Brett on staff. The Eagles lost a lot and it isn’t clear who the leaders will be on Cooksey’s first team. But he has the roster numbers looking good and there is a positive vibe in a program with a tradition of winning. We will all be watching closely to see what the Eagles and the new regime have in store for us.