One of the reasons that the Beechwood Tigers will be returning to UK’s Kroger Field next Friday for their third straight Class 2A championship game is a simple rule the Fort Mitchell guys live by: No surprises.
At least not for the Tigers, anyway.
You may be surprised, the other team surely may be surprised, even Beechwood’s own fans and the radio crew that know them so well, yeah, they’ll be surprised, too.
Like they all were with the 48-0 demolishing of a good Lloyd Memorial football team in the state semifinals Friday in front of a standing-room-only crowd on Edgar McNabb Field.
The first time these teams played, Beechwood toughed out a win after leading just 14-7 when their leader and maybe the state’s best high school football player, Mitchell Berger, was lost for the season with an ACL injury.
And then Beechwood scored the game’s last 20 points. But do it again? With young guys? Against a tough, physical Lloyd team that seemed to be hitting its stride?
Well, that would be a surprise.
Just the way the game’s first two touchdowns had to be, right? They were both to junior wide receiver Talon Linder, his first TD catches of the year on just his eighth and ninth receptions.
You must have been surprised, weren’t you, Talon was asked, especially the way he was open by at least 30 yards on the first one, a 58-yard strike from sophomore Clay Hayden. And then on the second, just 2:24 later, when he was clear by 10 yards from 22 yards out.
“We were working on that,” Linder said, echoing the words of Coach Noel Rash who said “we saw something in that first game . . . they took chances, we took advantage of it.”
Quarterback Hayden was also not surprised to have Linder that open. “We saw on film the corner was biting,” he said. “The first time I wasn’t surprised at all . . . the second time I was surprised — that he was that open again.”
Barely halfway through the first quarter and here they were, up 13-0. But it didn’t have to be that way had not Lloyd been called for a holding penalty, negating a 90-yard kickoff return TD by sophomore Isaiah Sebastian that could have put the Juggernauts up 7-6. Instead of being down 13-0.
That was as close as the Juggs would come after a first half with two bad snaps leading to a lost fumble and a punter having to scramble and turn it over on downs along with an interception by Landon Johnson on a perfect diving layout pick.
That allowed sophomore Chase Flaherty to get his game going, running it in for a trio of TDs, his eighth, ninth, and 10th in four playoff games replacing Berger.
Then came the game’s most entertaining play – and we’ll admit, a surprise even to Beechwood – a 55-yard interception return into the end zone by 250-pound lineman Nick Alexander.
Unfortunately for the two-way junior, it was negated by a flag for a blindside block that probably wasn’t but no matter, Liam McCormack scored on a 26-yard pass from Hayden on the very next play.
Surprised at his ability to weave his way down the field like a giant running back? Maybe a bit, the two-way junior lineman Alexander said.
“I’ve never even had the ball in my hands before,” he said. But he wasn’t surprised at his ability to make that play.
“It was a screen pass that they’d run earlier and our coaches give us a signal if they think it’s a screen,” Nick said, “so I was playing it.”
If we’re keeping up with how this was going, even a 55-yard interception TD run by a 250-pound lineman who had never even touched a football in a game was not a surprise to Beechwood.
OK, maybe Alexander’s broken-field running might have been a bit of a surprise. But 34-0 at halftime? Just Beechwood being Beechwood.
How well did the Beechwood defense play? It took Lloyd until four minutes before halftime to get its second first down. And in the fourth quarter with the backup defense in the game, Lloyd had a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line and the Beechwood backups held them off, pushing them back to the 5-yard line after four tries and preserving the shutout.
“Our kids have really stepped up, they’re playing smart and physical,” Rash said of the 214-26 four-playoff-game scoring edge that sends the Tigers into the finals against familiar foe/friend Mayfield, a 38-28 winner Friday over Lexington Christian Academy, the team that Beechwood beat in the state championship game a year ago. Game time is 4 p.m.
And that’s the problem for opponents. Lloyd coach Kyle Niederman’s team finished 10-4, with two of the losses to Beechwood, so he could say “we had a good year.” But then he added: “You can’t do that against a team like that.”
No you can’t. Penalties, interceptions, short punts, no punts, bad snaps, busted coverages, and the inability to throw the ball downfield against a team like Beechwood that doesn’t have those issues – not often, anyway – won’t cut it against the Tigers.
And yet, “We’ll peel the paint tomorrow,” Rash said of the way he and his coaches, and his players, will dissect every play on film.
“There were a couple of bad decisions,” of his that Hayden said he wasn’t looking forward to seeing on film despite hitting on 10 of 13 passes unofficially for 161 yards and three TDs with no interceptions.
Same for fellow sophomore Flaherty, who said he wasn’t thinking of this three touchdown runs but the times “I could have read the holes better . . . the line did a good job.”
As did the assistant coaches, something Rash never fails to point out.
“We’re going to the ‘ship,” offensive coordinator Greg Hergott called to first-year assistant Antonio Robinson Sr., father of top prospect Antonio Robinson Jr., of the championship matchup against a Mayfield team Beechwood has had a long history with.
Which is exactly what Rash shouted to his team in his short post-game address.
“We’re not done,” he told them.
And not a soul should be surprised.
LLOYD MEMORIAL 0 0 0 0 – 0
BEECHWOOD 20 14 7 7 — 48
BEECH: Linder 58 pass from Hayden (PAT failed)
BEECH: Linder 22 pass from Hayden (Kappes PAT)
BEECH: Flaherty 4 run (Kappes PAT)
BEECH: Flaherty 2 run (Kappes PAT)
BEECH: McCormack 26 pass from Hayden (Kappes PAT)
BEECH: Flaherty 1 run (Kappes PAT)
BEECH: Riegler 10 run (Kappes PAT)