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Beechwood Tigers back in state football final with ‘hungry’ team that exceeded early expectations

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The NKyTribune will be providing focused coverage of NKY high school football throughout the season, thanks to support from St. Elizabeth Healthcare Sports Medicine. See all of our pre-season features on each of NKY’s 21 high school football teams and follow our coverage, including roundups each week at Northern Kentucky High School Football.

By Terry Boehmker
NKyTribune sports reporter

Beechwood playing in the Class 1A football state championship game on Friday doesn’t surprise too many high school football fans. The Tigers have been one of the top small-school football programs in Kentucky for quite some time now.

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Beechwood coach Noel Rash talks to players after a practice session about preparing for Friday’s state championship game.

But there were a lot of question marks hanging over this year’s team when preseason practice drills began last summer. The majority of players had little or no varsity experience and they were being asked to replace the talented seniors who led last year’s team to the state final.

“We’ve kind of surprised ourselves,” Beechwood head coach Noel Rash said of the team’s success this season. “We weren’t a very good football team back in June. To get where we’ve gotten to says a lot about two things – our coaching staff has been incredible and the kids have responded to what they’ve taught them.”

The better-than-expected Beechwood team takes a 13-1 record into the championship game against Hazard (12-2) on Friday at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (CST), which will be 8 p.m. in Northern Kentucky.

If the Tigers win the season finale, they’ll claim the program’s 12th state championship trophy. But it has been a long time between titles with the last one coming in 2008.

“Last year, we lost at state (finals) so we’re pretty hungry,” said senior tight end and defensive end Josh Dietz. “I don’t think anybody wants this more than we do.”

“Me and a few other players have been going to Beechwood since kindergarten,” said senior offensive lineman Sam Tally. “I remember watching them win state in 2004 and 2007 and 2008. To be able to go win one my senior year is something I never thought I’d be able to do, so this is a dream come true for me.”

Hazard is a formidable obstacle to realizing that dream. The Bulldogs are a big, strong team that’s averaging 452 yards per game with an offense that pretty much revolves around two players. Junior running back Cory Smith is averaging 198 yards rushing and sophomore quarterback Bailey Blair is averaging 161 yards passing per game. Together, they’ve had a hand in 61 of the 78 touchdowns their team has scored this season.

“I believe we’ve got to stop the run against them,” said Beechwood linebacker Trevor Soward. “We’re more worried about that right now. It’s going to take speed, getting to the ball and knowing where we all fit in (on defensive schemes).”

st-e-football-plug-768x249Speed has been Beechwood’s best weapon on defense all season, especially during the playoffs. The Tigers have given up only two touchdowns in their first four playoff games and just one of them was scored against their first-team defense.

“Speed can kill a team’s will to want to play,” Soward said. “When we come off the ball that fast and when we gang tackle them that fast, they don’t want to play anymore.”

The offensive unit Beechwood’s coaching staff put together in pre-season practice has also performed well. The Tigers don’t have a lot of size up front, but the line has blocked well enough for skill players to use their quickness and speed to average 177 yards rushing and 162 yards passing per game.

The leaders of that balanced attack are senior running back Aiden Justice with 1,074 yards rushing and junior quarterback Brayden Burch with 2,245 yards passing. This is Burch’s first season as starting quarterback and he has steadily gotten better at running the offense.

“Balance has been our thing all year,” Rash said. “The great thing about our quarterback is if the defense gives us a different look we’re going to get into something else. We’re going to check off (at the line or scrimmage). We have that element this year and that’s something we haven’t had in a long time.”

Hazard will have a size advantage up front on both sides of the ball in Friday’s game, but that’s also something Beechwood has dealt with against several opponents this season.

“We’ve played against guys their size and they don’t intimidate us,” Talley said. “We’re going to come out and leave it all on the field and hopefully win the game.”

If the Tigers do bring home a championship trophy, it’ll be quite an accomplishment for a team that started the season without much proven talent on the varsity level.

“Our creed is commitment, sacrifice and, the most important one of all, brotherhood,” coach Rash said. “They play for each other as good as any group we’ve ever seen. I think playing for the guy next to you is really what gets you to a championship game. When you play for yourself, you can only go so far. When you play for the guys next to you, it can really take it to another level.”

Beechwood athletic director Justin Kaiser said there will be a pep rally and send-off for the football team at 12:45 p.m. Friday with fans lining the road in front of school. If the team wins, a victory celebration is planned for 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the school gymnasium.

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