Dan Weber’s Just Sayin’: NKY could have two football finalists but it won’t be easy

Dan Weber
Dan Weber
Dan Weber is LINK nky's sports editor-at-large. Contact him at [email protected]

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They lost their starting quarterback with a crack in his femur the last scrimmage before the season opener.

They lost their prize transfer corner/wide receiver from Florida, Kentucky’s No. 2-rated college prospect, for the first two games with a hamstring issue.

They lost their best blocker and two-way starter for three weeks in the middle of the season with a knee injury.

And finally, they lost the state’s leading scorer, their top running back, place-kicker, and punter – not to mention senior leader — for the season in the eighth game to major knee surgery.

And yet here they are, at 12-1 with the state’s top RPI rating of any class at .77094, back where the Beechwood Tigers always seem to be, hosting a state semifinal Class 2A game Friday against their Northern Kentucky challengers from Lloyd Memorial’s vastly improved program.

“I think resilience is a part of the way we coach,” Noel Rash said of his Tigers’ successful trip through all these injuries. “But it’s not me, they rally around each other… they care about each other, they know each other. It’s one of the advantages of being in a small community.”

Sophomore quarterback Clay Hayden knew he was coming back after he cracked his femur near the kneecap the last week of preseason. He just didn’t know when.

Eight weeks? Maybe for the playoffs. He’d be on crutches for at least four weeks, he was told and then who knows.

Beechwood’s Antonio Robinson Jr., left, and Clay Hayden, sidelined with injuries at the opening game. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

“All I wanted to do was walk,” Clay said. And get rid of those crutches. And rehab. He would throw every day with assistant coaches from a seated position. While his left leg was losing some strength and conditioning, everything else was getting better.

Starting with his mechanics. “You have to focus on the little things,” Clay said. And while no injury can ever be said to be a good thing, “It was definitely a good thing to be able to get through,” he said.

Especially when his rehab got him back after five weeks while freshman Cash Harney filled in spectacularly — for a young player. “There was definitely a lot with of fear,” Clay said of the Dixie Heights game, his first time back eight weeks ago.

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But now having completed 87 of 124 passes for 1,503 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions, the fear here is that which Clay and his Tiger team inspire in opponents.

An explanation from Clay as to how this has happened is simple: “We’re really disciplined… and every day in practice, we’re really locked in… it’s all been a real learning experience.”

Austin Waddell, two-way 240-pound senior tackle/linebacker who missed two games over three weeks, has a further explanation of minimizing the impact of injuries this season.

“Even if a player is injured, he’s involved in practice with mental reps,” Austin says, “we may miss the physical part of it but not the mental.”

So they’re ready to go. Just the way another sophomore, Chase Flaherty, was when Mitchell Berger went down against Lloyd with a season-ending knee injury requiring surgery five weeks ago.

“Chase has surprised everyone,” says fellow sophomore Clay. His numbers certainly have – 15 TDs in 72 carries for 606 yards. In his eight games, Berger had 21 rushing TDs.

But Berger also had a few words – which is par for the course for Mitchell. “I told him he’s the guy,” Berger said.

“He’s a young guy but he has really good vision,” Waddell says. “It definitely helps out to know he’s back there” seeing the running lanes. “We work a whole lot in practice getting to the second level.”

It helps knowing your running back can get there as well.

But replacing Berger was the big injury question that had to be answered. “That injury was so significant,” Rash says, knowing how many ways Berger contributed to this team.

Which is where the small schools are not at an advantage. They have fewer players to call on. But Beechwood had Flaherty. “We saw him in JV games . . . we knew he was good,” Berger said.

Just as they knew Antonio Robinson Jr., out those first two games, would be back and becoming more of a deep threat with every game.

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When Waddell – and Hayden – missed the Covington Catholic game where the Tigers got spanked 31-14, it was obvious “we definitely had to have everybody,” Waddell says. So after getting his meniscus excised – he’d lost 70 percent of it a couple of years ago – he was back.

“They didn’t want to rush me but it felt good,” he says. So back he came.

And with Waddell blocking and Hayden throwing, and Flaherty running, and Robinson Jr. going deep, the Tigers now have to repeat against a Lloyd team they beat 34-7 in Week 5.

“It’s great to have another Northern Kentucky team,” Waddell says, agreeing with Beechwood fans and coaches that even if it may be harder to beat a team twice, they wanted Lloyd to win last week against Breathitt County.

“But it is harder to make adjustments for the team that lost while the team that won doesn’t get to do that,” Waddell said.

Although Rash thinks that adjustment may have happened already for his team. It was the Lloyd game five weeks ago when Berger was lost for the season with Beechwood ahead 14-7. “And we scored 20 points from there,” Rash said, despite the loss of their best player.

Everybody else just stepped up. Now they’ll have to one more time.

FRIDAY NIGHT HIGH SCHOOL PLAYOFF FOOTBALL

Lloyd Memorial (10-3) at Beechwood (12-1), 7:30 p.m.: From 3-7 a year ago to 10-3 this season, Kyle Niederman’s Lloyd Juggernauts can hardly be asked to do much more. And yet here they are in the semifinals of the state’s Class 2A playoffs with a spot in next week’s championship game on the line. But it will take a victory on their second trip this season to Fort Mitchell after losing the first time in Tiger-town, 34-7.

Lloyd coach Kyle Niederman with his Juggs team. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

But this Jugg team is on a five-game winning streak (since the Beechwood game) and has won two playoff games (41-0 over Walton-Verona and 41-32 over Breathitt) with a ground-and-pound offense putting up 41 points per playoff game. It’s power and speed the Juggs can throw at you with 205-pound senior running back Kaiden Zulager and swift sophomore QB Isaiah Sebastian averaging 178.5 rushing yards a game between them. The problem is, the last time these teams played, the Beechwood defense limited Zulager and Sebastian to 52 yards each, on 33 carries. And with just two pass completions, that’s not nearly enough. So where to find that offense? And how to stop Chase Flaherty, who did not run the ball against the Juggs the first game? If it rains, as the forecast says it could, maybe it’s a different story. But with Clay Hayden throwing it for nearly 188 yards and more than two TDs a game, and Flaherty scoring it the way he has, give the edge to the Tigers at home at Edgar McNabb Field.

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Newport Central Catholic (11-2) at Pikeville (10-2), 7 p.m.: You’ve got to give it to Pikeville, the Panthers opened against a pair of larger schools with top programs – Corbin and Covington Catholic – and after a pair of one-score losses (24-19 to Corbin, 27-19 to CovCath), they’ve ripped off 10 straight wins while averaging 43 points a game in the playoffs. According to the CovCath people, Pikeville is legit. The Panthers have a 1-2 offensive punch in QB Isaac Duty (84 of 119 for 1,298 yards and 18 TDs with just one interception and running back Blake Birchfield (1,629 yards on 175 carries with 29 rushing TDs). NewCath QB Kolton Smith has the exact same 1,298 yards passing on 93 of 150 but with 15 TDs and three INTs. Another junior, Demetrick Welch, has 1,324 rushing yards and 17 TDs. Senior Luke Runyon has some 80 running/receiving yards a game and has scored 20 TDs, the same as Welch. NewCath will have to keep that offense going, not turn it over and be as sound and physical as possible to come out a winner this week. It’s not impossible, just difficult.

NewCath Coach Stephen Lickert with his Thoroughbred team. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

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