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‘You gotta have belief in your team.’ Early risks pay off for Boyle County in 4A title.

·6 min read

Between hugs from his children and pats on the back from Boyle County backers after the Rebels’ 30-13 win over Johnson Central, head coach Justin Haddix grinned in the direction of a TV reporter.

“I like the way we won tonight more than how we did it last year,” Haddix said.

This victory in the Class 4A KHSAA/UK Orthopaedics State Football Final was much different from the harrowing one Haddix and his players earned last season against Franklin County — a 31-28 final decided in overtime — but it’s as equal to that one as it is the eight others Boyle County won prior to hiring Haddix ahead of the 2020 season. The Rebels on Friday night became just the seventh school in KHSAA history to reach double-digit state titles on the football field, joining Trinity (27), Highlands (23), Beechwood (16), Mayfield (12), St. Xavier (12) and city rival Danville (11).

The Rebels set the tone on their first scoring drive, which started on their own 1-yard line and got extended by a fourth-and-1 conversion at their own 10-yard line. Quarterback Jagger Gillis, who returned for a fifth high school season under Senate Bill 128, picked up 4 yards on the play. Four plays later, he found Cole Lanter in the middle of the field for a 75-yard touchdown. The only thing that didn’t work out for the Rebels on that drive was a missed PAT.

There wasn’t much debate about that fourth-down call, Haddix said, nor another on Boyle’s next drive; on fourth-and-1 at the Johnson Central 47, Avery Bodner picked up 17 yards on a carry. Gillis rushed for a touchdown three plays later.

“You gotta have belief in your team, and I think that’s the type of (thing) we tell ‘em to do,” Haddix said. “ ... If we can’t get an inch, we probably ain’t gonna win the game anyway.”

Boyle seldom just got inches. It finished with 285 rushing yards on 40 carries, an average of 7.13 yards per attempt. Bodner had a game-high 154 yards on 16 rushes while Gillis finished with 131 on 23 carries. Gillis received MVP honors; he rushed for two touchdowns and was 6-for-9 for 131 yards and two TD passes. Lanter, who recently was offered a preferred walk-on spot at Kentucky, caught both scores and ended with 116 yards on five receptions.

Jackson Smith, a kicker who’s committed to UK as a scholarship player in the 2022 recruiting class, connected on his next three point-after attempts and a 29-yard field goal that pushed Boyle County’s lead out to 16-0 midway through the third quarter. Grant Rice got Johnson Central on the board with a 2-yard touchdown run; a failed two-point conversion made it 16-6 with 2:52 left in the third quarter

Following a Boyle County score to finish the third, the Golden Eagles mounted a quick response to get back within a 10-point margin, but they’d get no closer. The Rebels melted nearly seven minutes off the clock before Gillis delivered the dagger with 2:43 to play.

Boyle County ran 12 plays on that final drive. Gillis rushed on eight of them, including a 25-yard pickup on a third-and-4. On an earlier third-and-4, he connected with Lanter for a 12-yard gain.

“Just be smart and don’t turn the ball over. That’s all Coach Haddix kept saying on the last drive,” Gillis said. “I don’t let nobody take me down in a one-on-one, that ain’t gonna happen. I don’t want to look weak. These skinny legs, they can do a little bit.”

Haddix improved to 2-for-2 in state finals appearances at Boyle County after losing two as the head coach at Corbin (including one to the Rebels, in 2017). He has awhile to go to catch Chuck Smith (6-2 in his finals appearances at the school), but he’s already matched Larry French, who led title efforts in 2009 and 2010.

Like the other men who’ve led Boyle County to the pinnacle, Haddix gives all the glory to his players.

“They won the game,” Haddix said. “I was just here with the greatest seat in the house.”

Boyle County celebrates with the trophy after defeating Johnson Central to win the Class 4A title at Kroger Field on Friday night.
Boyle County celebrates with the trophy after defeating Johnson Central to win the Class 4A title at Kroger Field on Friday night.

Moment of silence

Johnson Central head coach Jim Matney died from COVID-19 complications in late September, five games into the Golden Eagles’ season. The KHSAA and Kentucky Football Coaches Association before the game held a moment of silence in his honor.

The Golden Eagles (12-3) before Friday had not lost since Matney’s passing. They last week avenged a loss to Franklin County in last year’s state semifinal round, 42-24.

“Coach is looking down on us with a big smile right now,” Rice said. “I think he’d be happy that we made it back this far. I think he’d be happy that we got our revenge on Franklin. It’s a bittersweet feeling. You want to get the win whenever you get here, but I know he’d be proud of us.”

Johnson Central was motivated all season long by Matney, who coached the Golden Eagles to two state titles, including a 2019 victory over the Rebels.

“We didn’t think, we had to do it for him,” said offensive lineman Grant Bingham. “It was always every day for Coach. Every play. Every down. Every snap was for Coach Matney.”

Boyle County head coach Justin Haddix and quarterback Jagger Gillis (9) celebrate after winning the Class 4A championship Friday night. Gillis rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two and received the game’s most valuable player award.
Boyle County head coach Justin Haddix and quarterback Jagger Gillis (9) celebrate after winning the Class 4A championship Friday night. Gillis rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two and received the game’s most valuable player award.

Highlights

Beechwood lands final blow in another thrilling state title win over Lexington Christian

‘I’ll miss him.’ Father-son duo helps Pikeville outlast Russellville in Class A finals.

Recapping the 2021 Kentucky high school football state championships

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