The Mason County, Fleming County and Bracken County football teams put together successful 2017 seasons and all three await first round playoff games on Friday.
Here’s a look at how they got there:
Jonathan Thomas is in his third season as the Mason County head coach.
His first season ended with a 1-9 record. In Thomas’ second season, the Royals were able to win three more games and make the playoffs.
This year, he’s added another three wins to the regular season record. Mason County capped off a 7-3 regular season last Friday, and await a first round playoff game at Johnson Central. The long process to success wasn't easy.
“It’s been frustrating, it’s been very frustrating,” said Thomas. “You just try to keep the kids’ spirits as high as you can and try to get them to understand it is a process. You don’t become great overnight.
“You win small battles and those things eventually open up and eventually you hope to cash in,” added Thomas. “We feel like we’ve cashed in a little bit this year.”
The 2017 campaign began with a 68-7 shellacking of North Adams, before the Royals had their first of three losses of the season to Fleming County. The three were by a combined 11 points.
Mason County fell to the rival Panthers, 18-14. The other two came against Scott, 27-21, in overtime, and to Bourbon County, 27-26, after a failed two-point conversion.
The final two losses came at the start of district play, after the Royals started with a 3-1 record and outscored opponents in the three victories, 186-37.
After starting 0-2 in the district, the Royals faced a 19-point deficit with under eight minutes to go against Harrison County and were in a position to potentially miss the postseason.
But that didn’t cross Thomas’ mind.
“We try to take it one play and one game at a time. I knew we could play and I knew we wanted to win and we wanted our kids to fight,” said Thomas. “Our kids are going to fight you. Whether we came up a few plays short here and there, we were good enough to be in the spot we are now, and maybe even beyond that.”
Mason County managed to come away with the win in double overtime, 54-48, starting a four-game winning streak heading into Friday's game in Paintsville.
Fleming County was able to do something that it hasn’t done since 2001 – claim an outright district title.
“It’s been a long process and a lot of hard work,” said Fleming County coach Bill Spencer. “We’ve been close several times - we tied for first a few years back and have been second a few times, but finally getting over the hump and winning...it is a big deal for the kids.”
The Panthers were a perfect 5-0 in Class 3A, District 5 play, after posting a 3-1 start to the season, despite losing 2016 leading receiver Zac Alexander in the first game and suffering other injuries along the way. After a 44-0 beat down of Lewis County, Fleming County used a last-minute, 79-yard punt return from Jaden Campbell to come away with a 35-30 win against Russell.
“When he scored and we won, we kind of knew we had busted through that last bubble. We knew Bath County would be a tough challenge and West Carter would be a tough challenge too, but once you beat the big dog you kind of take a breath of fresh air,” said Spencer.
They claimed the title with a 14-9 win against West Carter and a 49-20 win at Bath County. Not satisfied, Fleming County went to Pendleton County and won, 41-0, to finish perfect in the district.
“Our goal was, one, to win the district and after that we wanted to be undefeated in the district,” said Spencer. “Now they want to advance in the playoffs, not just say they have a home playoff game. We have the potential to have three home playoffs games. We’ve got to take them one at a time now. Playoffs are a week-to-week process.”
The Panthers will host Garrard County on Friday.
The culture has changed around the Bracken County football program.
From the first year in 2003 until 2015, the Polar Bears went a combined 23-107 in the regular season, but have now posted back-to-back 8-2 regular season records.
“The expectations that I put on myself are going to be greater than anything else others are going to have. We had quality players coming back from last year, so we definitely wanted to come as close to 8-2 like last year. We don’t want to go backwards, obviously,” said first-year coach David Brausch.
After finishing in a three-way tie for the best record in Class 1A, District 5 last year, the Polar Bears finished second in the standings this fall and earned a home playoff game for the second consecutive year.
Bracken County’s only loss in the district was to eventual champion Paris, 34-14. The other was to Ludlow. The Polar Bears outscored opponents, 300-46, in their eight wins, including four shutouts by the “Bear Down Defense.”
That defense allowed only 158 yards of total offense per game in the regular season. In 10 games, they’ve allowed 10.7 points per game, while the offense averages 33.8 points per game.
“Play good defense and it doesn’t matter if you’re home, away or if it's sunny or raining," said Brausch. "All that stuff doesn’t matter when you play good defense.”
Another evolution in the program has come on offense. The Polar Bears returned the running threats of Tad Fisher and Griffin Appleman, but have added the aerial attack with quarterback Trey Brausch, who has thrown for a school-record 1,234 yards.
The next step in changing the culture? Winning a playoff game, and possibly, a state title – something Brausch did at Lebanon (OH) in 1998. After the championship, Brausch saw the youth programs in the community boom.
“Success breeds success,” said Brausch. “And hopefully we can start that this Friday.”
For seven years in a row, the Polar Bears have lost in the first round of the postseason. The eighth playoff game in school history will take place against Fairview on Friday.