MURRAY — A new chapter of a budding football rivalry will take place Friday night as Calloway County takes on the Hopkinsville Tigers in the first round of the KHSAA 4A playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Calloway County’s Jack Rose Stadium and could be a third straight nail-biter between the district foes.
Just a week ago it appeared that Calloway’s season would be ended prematurely by a COVID-19 shutdown, but a week-long delay to the start of the post-season gave the Lakers renewed life. Calloway Head Coach Chris Champion is excited for his team to have an opportunity to compete in the playoffs.
“It’s a great feeling for our guys to have the chance to be on the field, ” Champion said. ”This whole year good news has come with a little bit of skepticism. Our kids have had a great attitude, though. If today is our last day of practice or Friday night is our last game, it has been a blessing to be around our kids every day this year.”
Coach Champion’s Laker squad heads into the playoffs as the district’s number two seed thanks to their 14-7 win over Hopkinsville on Sept. 25. Immediately following that game, the Lakers season was suspended for two weeks because of a positive COVID result within the team.
Ball hawking was huge for the Lakers in the previous tussle with the Tigers as Calloway recovered four fumbles and snagged an interception. Calloway County forced five turnovers and repeatedly got off of the field on third down in holding Hopkinsville to 161 yards from scrimmage. The Laker defense ended the season ranked sixth in the state of Kentucky in forced fumbles and 13th in interceptions.
Timely plays by the Laker defense kept the usually potent Tiger offense from being productive. The defense also gave Calloway its first scoring opportunity as Drew Hudgin intercepted a pass from Hopkinsville quarterback, Treyvon Jefferson and returned it to the one-yard line. That set up a Zachary Orange touchdown for the Lakers to tie the game just before halftime.
The Calloway offense complimented the efforts of their defense as they controlled the ball and helped win the battle for time of possession. Behind 88 yards on 19 carries from Orange, the Lakers held the ball for over 28 minutes of action. The ground game also gave Calloway the final score of the night as Jaxson McKay scampered 9 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 6:11 left in the game.
Behind a highly regarded defense, Calloway finished the regular season with at least a .500 record for the first time since 2016. The 2016 season was also the last time the Lakers hosted a playoff game at Jack Rose Stadium. The Lakers have an overall record of 3-3.
Facing a familiar opponent, Coach Champion knows what it is going to take for his squad to survive and advance in the playoffs.
“We have to figure out a way to win without all of the turnovers we got against them earlier in the season because Hopkinsville’s coaching staff is too good to allow that to happen again,” Champion said. “We have to be better defenders against the run and force more three and outs. We also have to be even better at controlling the clock on offense to keep them off of the field. They have changed their philosophy since the last game so we have to be ready for that.”
Calloway’s defense can put pressure on the opposing quarterback. The Lakers are the 12th-ranked scoring defense in the state and enter the playoffs ranked sixth in total sacks. The Lakers’ Nicholas Watters is ranked third among the Class 4A leaders at sacking the quarterback, while teammate Timarian Bledsoe enters the playoffs ranked 11th. Calloway will need to apply pressure consistently if they want to control the ninth-ranked passing attack of Hopkinsville
The stingy Lakers have only allowed more than one touchdown twice this season. Paducah Tilghman and Murray are the only two opponents that Calloway’s defense surrendered more than 10 points against during the regular season.
A playoff win over Hopkinsville on Friday night would be a huge step forward for the Laker football program and cement a new rivalry in the district. Coach Champion is looking forward to his team having the chance to finish the most bizarre season in Kentucky high school football history on their own terms.
“Finishing for us has a loose definition right now. We feel like we have been given the gift of these playoffs,” Champion said. “It means a lot to our players to go into these playoffs with a chance to win and prove themselves worthy of being one of the best teams in the state. Having a chance to win a regional championship is a goal of our seniors and that is right in front of them. Our guys are starting to dream a little bigger as our program grows and that’s a testament to our kids.”