Nicholas County opened the high school football season with high expectations for another postseason playoff run, and for good reason.
The Grizzlies returned 15 seniors from a team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2018 playoffs.
While another playoff run seemed inevitable, the path became somewhat bumpy due to some key injuries early in the season.
The loss of starting quarterback Timmy Baker for several games in the middle of the season and running back Justin Hill being hobbled for a short time made the season tougher than expected.
But, as they have done in the past, the Grizzlies weathered the storm and ended the season on a five-game winning streak to make the postseason.
Tonight the No. 9-rated Grizzlies (8-2) will travel to No. 8 Frankfort (8-2) for an opening round playoff game at 7:30 p.m.
“Once we kinda nursed ourself back to health, I feel we started playing better football,” veteran Nicholas County head coach Gene Morris said. “After we had the bye week, we were able to get healthy and put everybody back into their original positions which really helped.”
The last few weeks of the season, Nicholas County has looked like the team many expected at the beginning of the year.
“When we were able to get everybody back in their original spots, it really helped with our confidence,” Morris said. “We had a really good run during that stretch when Timmy was out and Luke (LeRose) was at quarterback. I feel like our line really gelled and got even tighter. In the end I think it made us a better football team.”
Nicholas County and Frankfort are not complete strangers, the two teams met in Ridgeley back in the 2014 playoff quarterfinals. The Falcons won that game, 26-20 and Morris sees some similarities in the 2019 team.
“They are a wing-T type team and a very good football team. They have three really good running backs and a quarterback that runs the ball really well,” Morris said. “Kinda reminds me of the playoff team we face that went to the (championship game). The only difference may be that this quarterback is more run oriented than pass oriented.”
The Falcons have accumulated 3,618 yards of total offense this season with 3,362 yards of that total coming on the ground. Frankfort has found the end zone 47 times via its rushing attack. The three-headed monster at running back includes Nick Marley, J.J. Blank and Peyton Shanholtz.
Defensively the Falcons have been a stingy bunch with most of the points surrendered coming with the game’s outcome already decided.
“They have two big inside linebackers and two big tackles,” Morris said. “When you play a team like this, it is all about discipline and doing what you are supposed to do. We have to play within ourself because we are going to have our hands full.”
While going through a stretch without some key players is not an optimal situation, Nicholas County weathered the storm and ultimately came out of that period as a better football team.
“Jacob Williams stepped up for us. We had Zach O’Dell step up as well,” Morris said. “When we played Lincoln, we didn’t have Justin Hill, he was injured and he was iffy for awhile. Those guys stepped up and it gave us a three-back attack the rest of the season.”
Another big advantage for Nicholas County is the fact that the Grizzlies have been in playoff-mode for the last five weeks of the regular season.
“It was big to get that winning streak going for us. We knew there were going to be some 7-3 teams that weren’t going to get in the playoffs,” Morris said. “We felt like if we won out, we controlled our own destiny, but if we stubbed our toe, we might be on the outside looking in.”
Battling a ground-and-pound team like Frankfort, the secret to success is no surprise.
“We have to play good sound defense and No. 1, we have to stop the run and force them to put the ball in the air,” Morris said. “They like to pass, but only when they want to do it. They don’t want to be forced to (pass).”
“We also have spread them out and loosen the box up by completing some passes,” Morris continued. “If we can do that, I think we can kick our running game in. Then we can attack them with some play-action (passes) and open up some throwing lanes.”
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