The last time McCracken County football laced up its cleats for meaningful minutes: Oct. 23, a bitter home loss to Henderson County in a pivotal Class 6A, District 1 matchup at Marquette Stadium in Paducah.
Since then, the Mustangs have been on standby with much-anticipated games against crosstown-rival Paducah Tilghman and vaunted 5A regional power Graves County canceled due to COVID-19.
Gone are the storylines that could’ve been generated from those games. Would the seasoned leadership of the Mustangs prevail over the young, but talented, Blue Tornado? Would Eagles running back Clint McKee and Mustangs running back Hunter Bradley combine for more than 400 yards rushing, bashing against opposing defenses in a quest for the Paducah Sun’s coveted All-Purchase Player of the Year nod?
It’ll never be known.
But with nearly a month off from live action, and some missed practice time mixed in, McCracken County has a new story in front of it when it hosts Apollo this Friday in the opening round of the KHSAA Class 6A playoffs:
One of rejuvenation. One of energy.
“We tried to create as many live competitive situations as we could, and it’s been a great benefit,” noted MCHS coach Marc Clark. “We’ve had a lot of ‘good-on-good,’ and it’s created a competitive environment. Typically, you don’t allow some guys to get tackled, but we’ve even allowed going live on our running backs and our wide receivers, just to keep an edge. Kind of an ‘iron sharpens iron’ approach.”
Not the worst idea when preparing for John Edge and his Eagles (4-3), who followed up a close loss with Henderson (19-14) with three straight wins against Marshall County, Daviess County and Owensboro Catholic before missing the regular-season finale against Central Hardin due to COVID-19 cancellation. Edge’s quarterback, Damian Lovinsky, and running back, Harold Patterson, combined for more than 925 yards rushing and nine rushing touchdowns in the three-week stretch, and Clark notes the Eagles’ defense has only improved since the Mustangs walloped their way to a 45-21 win over Apollo on Sept. 25.
Although it was a month ago, McCracken County (4-2) did fall in its final two regular-season contests against Bowling Green and Henderson County. It seems so long ago, and as such, Clark notes his team is “beyond thrilled” to be back on the field and in this playoff scenario.
His only concern: the “adrenaline dump” that often comes with early efforts.
“I think Apollo has enough (weapons) to worry us,” he added. “I don’t want us to be too up, you know? We’ve got to stay focused with a four-quarter effort. This is not just some walkthrough. But in the same breath, I really want us to play well. Guys just want to play. They’re getting a chance to compete again, and in those last two games, we really just didn’t have our best efforts.”
One thing is certain, the Mustangs are fresh as fresh could be, and the last time around, McCracken County rolled up more than 500 yards of offense behind 179 yards from Bradley and 216 yards passing from Pryor Lamb. Joe Casey (two), LeAndre Bolen (two) and Isaiah Keys (one) combined for five sacks, and Colton Smallwood and Ian McCune each had interceptions.
Tilghman back after five-week break
Much like the crosstown Mustangs, it’s been a month since Paducah Tilghman football laced up its cleats for meaningful minutes: a stinging Class 3A, District 1 loss to Union County on Oct. 16 in Morganfield serving as the last snaps for this team.
Since then, the team has endured — among many things — a mandatory two-week quarantine due to a COVID-19 positive test, and the Blue Tornado (3-3) couldn’t reasonably return to group workouts until Nov. 6 at the earliest.
This meant the loss of games against Webster County, McCracken County and Crittenden County — or in other words, a district opponent and back-to-back potential masterpieces with the Mustangs and the rowdy Rockets.
“I feel like everyone knows they’re playing on borrowed time,” notes PTHS coach Jonathan Smith. “It was not an ‘if,’ but ‘when’ ... and we’re all finding out that none of us are immune to this. ... And I know it got (our team’s) attention as far as the finite-ness of where we are. It can be over week to week, and right now, we’re just fortunate enough to be able to go to practice. There’s a greater appreciation for practice, and truth-be-told, I think it’s made me more loose in coaching. I can’t plan every waking detail.”
So, the biggest difference between the Blue Tornado and the Trigg County Wildcats — Friday’s home opponent in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs? It’s the fact that Mark Peach and his squad were one of the few teams across the state to play nine-straight games for a 2020 regular-season. It’s a rare and treasured feat all on its own, and though the Wildcats went only 3-6 in that stretch, the team is undoubtedly better than when it first suited up in early September.
The Wildcats have a really strong pair of rushers in Kendric Adams (564 yards, seven TD) and Jaquellus Martin (513 yards, 10 TD rushing; 469 yards, seven TD receiving), a strong receiver in Jhaden Vaughn (348 yards, two touchdowns), and a quarterback in Jacob Wease (1,450 yards passing, 18 TD, 10 INT) that has found more footing week to week.
On Sept. 25, Tilghman topped Trigg County 63-26 at McRight Field in Paducah, thanks to 242 yards passing and four touchdowns in Jack James’ debut, as well as 189 yards and another score from Malachi Rider. Senior wideout Brian Thomas had two catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense swarmed for more than 90 tackles.
But that was two months ago, and though the Wildcats have never beaten the Blue Tornado, everything feels in reset mode. Almost like a new season has started for each program.
Smith does feel like his team is as healthy and as physical as the team has been all year, and practice has been “simple,” he says, with blocking and tackling as top focuses.
The team has added a couple of “wrinkles,” Smith added, and there is an expectation to perhaps “gamble.”
“We’ve got to go all in with it,” he said. “The problem with now, versus July, is it has been a month since we’ve had football.
“Lose, and we’re done.”