MURRAY — Trust the system. Trust the history. The hometown Murray High Tigers trusted in their postseason dominance over the visiting Caldwell County Tigers, and came out with a 27-13 victory in the first round of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s Class 2A Playoffs Friday night. Murray High (8-2) won their fifth consecutive game over Caldwell in the postseason, as the teams have developed quite the playoff rivalry, meeting six times in the last nine seasons.
More recently however, Caldwell (7-4) dealt Murray High its second loss on the season three weeks ago, thanks to bad weather conditions and four turnovers by Murray’s High. After a couple of balls bounced off the Ty Holland turf early, yet fortuitously they bounced back into Murray High’s hands. Kainoa Olive kickstarted the rematch for Murray High when he blocked a punt at the end of the first quarter, which was then scooped up and returned 35 yards for a touchdown by Rowdy Sokolowski, to give Murray High a 7-0 lead. They then leaned on their defense and shut down Caldwell’s offensive attack, limiting the visiting Tigers to only 177 yards of total offense.
That defense was led by senior lineman Will Mitchum and his 11.5 tackles, 10 of them solo. Senior defensive back Caleb Cauley was second on the team in tackles with four and also had a highlight pass-deflection on a key defensive stop early in the second quarter. With Caldwell driving into Murray High territory and trying to keep the game close, quarterback Jack Stevens launched a deep pass toward fullback Jamus Carneyhan. Cauley leaped and with his right hand high-pointed the ball as he swatted it away around the goal line. The play ignited the chilly crowd and Murray’s fourth-down defense for the rest of the night. Caldwell tried to convert on fourth down six times Friday, but succeeded only once.
“The defense played outstanding,” said Murray High Head Coach Darren Bowling. “They kept us in the game when the offense was struggling, trying to find a way. Then, they had the goal line stand and some fourth-down stops that they made. The defense did an excellent job.”
Murray High’s offense, though not as statistically strong on the ground as in recent weeks, continued their grind-it-out, guess-who-has-the-ball, rushing-machine to eat up the clock and put enough points on the board to ensure the season would live to see next week.
“Offensively, we did a good job of moving balls on certain drives and did enough to win the game,” said Bowling. “But they’re physical. You can’t take anything away from Caldwell, they’re a physical football team. Their defenses come and get you and to do what we did I thought was a special, special thing tonight. These guys have come together and are playing like a team.”
A 16-yard sweep around the left side had B-back Xavier Biggers diving for the front of the end zone to push Murray High’s lead to 14-0 with 3:46 left in the second quarter, which Bowling was hoping would give his Tigers a cushion heading into halftime. But after Mitchum and his teammates stoned Caldwell on another fourth-down play more than a minute later, Caldwell’s defense forced a punt and, with the aid of multiple Murray penalties, found the end zone. Stevens scored on a two-yard run, but Andrew Orr blocked the point-after attempt to send the game to halftime with Murray High up 14-6.
“As a team, we just hate to lose,” Orr said. “To lose against Caldwell at home, we couldn’t lose again, and that just really sparked the whole team.”
Just over a minute into the 2nd half, Caldwell’s first drive of the half was thwarted by the Murray defense when they knocked the pigskin from senior leading receiver Max Kramer’s hands as he was being tackled. Defensive back Zavion Carman, a sophomore, who made many big plays Friday, recovered the fumble and gave the ball back to the offense.
“Zavion came to play,” said Bowling. “You could tell that early in the game. We talked before the game about the seniors, and telling the young guys this game means a lot to them because it could be their last. So you’ve got to go out there and play like seniors, play with these guys and play for these guys. I thought Zavion really went out there and showed out tonight.”
“I’m not going to be cocky about it,” said Carman. “But I can do a little stuff. Just throw me in and see what I can do, and I’ll do the best I can at anything.”
Quarterback Sokolowski would run in a 13-yard keeper to give Murray High breathing room at 20-6 with 6:40 to go. His 40 yards rushing in the game was not close to his season average, but his absolutely masterful deception on handoffs all night long more than made up for that, as he kept the Caldwell defense and everybody else in the stadium guessing where the ball was going.
About two minutes into the fourth, Sokolowski scored on the ground again, this time from four yards, to push the lead to 27-6.
After Caldwell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Sokolowski was intercepted and Caldwell marched all the way to the Murray 1-yard line, but consistent with the theme for the night, Mitchum and Olive would stuff Caldwell leading-rusher Logan Smiley on 4th-and-1 at the goal line and completed a strong defensive stand.
Caldwell did manage to score in the final two minutes, but it was too little, too late, as Murray High and everybody on the west side of Ty Holland Stadium began turning their attention to another rematch. This one will be with the rival Mayfield Cardinals (10-1), who advanced to host next week’s round at Mayfield after dominating Ballard Memorial 60-0 Friday night.
“We didn’t really know how it was going to go with this coach,” said Carman of the first season under Bowling. “But we offered our trust to him, we followed through with his plan, but it’s obviously been working out for us. Hopefully we can go on to win state. It’s just been a good season for us, honestly.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12, in Mayfield.