The Belfry Pirates began the season 0-5. They entered the playoffs with an unheard of losing record of 4-6. And in perhaps the most improbable state championship appearance in program history, they faced a fourth down and 7 on their own 38-yard line trailing by a point with just over five minutes left.
“I told our kids, the greater the odds, the most impossible odds allow for the most amazing miracles. And if I’ve ever been around a team that provided an amazing miracle for a season, it was this team,” Belfry Coach Philip Haywood said after his Pirates captured the school’s eighth state championship in a 33-28 win over Paducah Tilghman in the 2021 UK Orthopaedics State Football Finals Class 3A title game at Kroger Field on Saturday.
Belfry’s last little miracle came on Isaac Dixon’s run around left end facing that fourth-and-7 in the fourth quarter. The now two-time state championship most valuable player turned the corner and blazed 62 yards for a touchdown that put the Pirates ahead for good.
“I wanted the ball the whole game and he trusts me,” said Dixon, who rushed for 376 yards and all five of Belfry’s touchdowns. “It turned out my team blocked it perfectly and it just led to a 62-yard touchdown, and I can’t ask any more. They did exactly what they needed to do. I just did the bare minimum and walked it into the end zone.”
On the ensuing kickoff after Dixon’s score, Tilghman fumbled the ball at midfield. The Pirates’ offense sealed it with its merciless run game that ground out the final minutes.
“The greatest thing about these guys is that regardless of our record, every Friday night, every Monday afternoon when we looked at film, everybody just bought into the idea that we were getting better, and one day, we would be able to play,” Haywood said. “We just have to play long enough to get good. And we might have played close to our best today. Obviously, there were some mistakes out there, but I’m not going to worry about those with the score the way it is.”
Belfry (9-6) and Paducah Tilghman (8-7) represented offensive styles as disparate as the distance between the two schools (some 400 miles). The Pirates never threw a pass and scored on methodical, clock-draining drives of 10 plays or more in taking a 13-7 lead with under two minutes to go in the first half.
But Tilghman’s more wide-open offense could strike quickly as it did on its opening drive of the game when freshman quarterback Jack James hit Camdon Marshall on a 12-yard touchdown to cap a five-play drive that took less than two minutes.
The Blue Tornado took even less time to retake the lead before the break. James hit Marshall again on a 9-yard TD pass with 11 seconds left in the second quarter to tie the game at 13.
Belfry mishandled Tilghman’s kickoff and gave the ball back to the Blue Tornado with seven seconds on the clock. That was time enough for James to hit Marshall again. Marshall broke back to the ball at the 5, shook a tackle and strolled into the end zone as time expired. A two-point conversion run on a reverse by Joe Starks put Tilghman up 21-13.
Haywood wouldn’t divulge what he actually said to his team at the intermission, but the Pirates responded.
“We just talked and said this is no different than the way we started our season. We started off kind of slow, we got kind of ragged and we felt kind of bad about it, but that’s the first half,” Haywood said. “It’s the second half that counts.”
Belfry took its opening drive of the second half 11 plays for 71 yards and another Dixon score from 22 yards out to tie the game 21-21 with 5:21 to play in the third quarter.
A defensive stand at their own 23-yard line gave the Pirates the ball back late in the third quarter and set up Belfry’s fastest score of the game. Dixon broke away for a 37-yard touchdown to give the Pirates a 27-21 lead with 11:48 to play after the extra-point kick was missed.
Tilghman then took a page out of Belfry’s playbook and marched down the field using mostly its run game. Malachi Rider tumbled into the end zone from 9 yards out to put the Blue Tornado in front 28-27 with 7:25 to play.
James threw for 177 yards and three TDs. Rider led Tilghman in rushing with 110 yards.
“Our guys fought hard the whole time, so you can’t complain about that,” said first-year Tilghman head coach Sean Thompson, who led Crittenden County to two district titles in three seasons before taking the Blue Tornado job. “We haven’t been there in awhile, but we’re back, and we’re young and we’re hungry. We’ve tasted it now, so we expect to continue to come back here. We understand when I say that, this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Teams don’t get to go to state championships all the time. A lot of things have to fall in place to get here, but you have to have expectations. And in Paducah, they’re high.”
Haywood now has 466 wins, the most among Kentucky high school football coaches, and eight state titles at Belfry. Given the struggles of this season, he confirmed that this championship was the sweetest.
“All of our players had some doubts,” Haywood said. “They’ve never been 0-4, 0-5. I’ve never been there either, but I believe. … We can’t control what happened yesterday, but we can control what happens today … And that’s what we did.”
At Kroger Field in Lexington
Class 3A: Belfry 33, Paducah Tilghman 28
Class 5A: Frederick Douglass (13-1) vs. South Warren (13-1), (late)
Class 6A: Male (13-0) vs. St. Xavier (13-1), (late)
Class A: Pikeville 30, Russellville 27
Class 2A: Beechwood 23, Lexington Christian 21
Class 4A: Boyle County 30, Johnson Central 13
Note: Please visit Kentucky.com or view Monday’s Herald-Leader print edition or e-Edition for coverage of Saturday’s late games.