Panthers bring experience, maturity to state finals
By Jim Turner

Posted on December 1, 2021 9:03 PM


Excitement is building to a fever pitch as RVK heads to its seventh Class A state championship game. The Panthers have won three state championships (1980, 1983, 1990) and been runner-up three years (1965, ’66 and ’87), making this the rubber game.

The Russellville Panthers face the Pikeville Panthers Friday at 11 a.m. Central Time in the UK Healthcare Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine State Football Finals, at Kroger Field in Lexington, home of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Radio coverage will begin at 10:30, with the WRUS Countdown to Kickoff with John Brett Reynolds & Chris McGinnis, on all WRUS platforms: 104.9fm l 610am l l WRUS app

At 10 a.m. Thursday, a Pep Rally will be held in Jim Young Gymnasium at Russellville High School to show support the Panthers before they travel to Lexington, and host WRUS wants the entire community to feel welcomed to join us!

“Parents, Alumni, and all Panther fans are encouraged to come celebrate the team and help send them off to Lexington in style!” says McGinnis.

Among those attending will be Ken Barrett, who coached the three state champion teams and one of the runners-up during a remarkable 11-season span.

That runner-up role came in the 1987 finals against a powerful Pikeville team, the first of three state titles for the Eastern Kentucky team, also known as Panthers.

That year, Russellvillians felt like the big and talented Pikeville team was more like a junior college or prep school team than a mere high school group.

This time, experience and maturity characterize Coach Mikie Benton’s Panthers, who feature 14 seniors, 9 of whom were seniors last year, too. Fifth-year seniors are a rarity in high school sports.

That extra year is the result of the KHSAA, the state school board and the Kentucky General Assembly allowing students to repeat the 2020-21 school year if they and their parents felt that another year in high school would help them after being out of the classroom much of that year because of the COVID pandemic.

Seven of the eight seniors on Russellville’s 2020 team chose to return. They are All-Stater Chevis Elliott, Xavier Coleman, Zach Dowlen, Jackson Hampton, Josh McMurry, Jaquis Todd and Josh Todd.

Adding to the experience are two transfers from Logan County. They are Braxton Baptiste, who was the starting quarterback for the Cougars the first two games last year before being injured and missing the rest of the season, and magnificently talented receiver/defensive back Anthony ‘Rooster’ Woodard. They had played middle school ball for RMS before becoming Cougars.

Baptiste’s and Woodard’s families transferred them to RHS in the spring last year so they would be returning RHS students, not LCHS.

Added to Russellville’s resurgence are five other seniors who were juniors last year. Ben Allen, Nick Bolllenbecker, Dustin Brown, Jovari Gamble and Lennon Ries are key contributors to the Panthers’ success. Ries is the quarterback, Gamble has rushed for over 1,000 yards, and Brown is automatic on place kicks.

Jason Frakes, the high school sports expert of the Louisville Courier-Journal who is formerly from Bowling Green, wrote the following synopses of the teams for The C-J:

Players to watch Pikeville senior quarterback

Isaac McNamee , son of head coach Chris McNamee, has completed 130 of 200 passes (65%) for 1,739 yards and 27 touchdowns with four interceptions. He has committed to Murray State. His top targets are senior Zac Lockhart (58 catches, 776 yards, 11 TDs) and junior Wade Hensley (31 catches, 496 yards, 11 TDs). Lockhart has offers from Morehead State and Tennessee-Martin. Junior Blake Birchfield leads the state in rushing with 2,329 yards and has 23 TDs on 260 carries (8.95 yards per carry). Junior defensive back Luke Ray (132) and junior linebacker Devin DeRossett (94) lead the defense in tackles. Senior lineman Landon Hammock has a team-high 15 tackles for loss, and Lockhart has a team-best four interceptions at safety.

Russellville senior quarterback

Lennon Ries has completed 83 of 164 passes (50.6%) for 1,231 yards and 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Top targets are seniors Jaquis Todd (26 catches, 310 yards, four TDs), Anthony Woodard (23 catches, 417 yards, five TDs) and Jackson Hampton (15 catches, 363 yards, four TDs). Senior Jovari Gamble leads the rushing attack with 1,398 yards and 23 TDs on 208 carries (6.7 yards per carry). Senior linebacker Josh McMurry (82), senior defensive back Chevis Elliott (73) and senior lineman Zach Dowlen (73) lead the defense in tackles. Senior end Braxton Baptiste leads the team in tackles for loss (23) and sacks (11). Russellville ranks No. 2 in the state with 23 interceptions, led by Elliott (nine) and Woodard (six).

By the numbers Pikeville has won eight in a row since back-to-back losses to Lexington Christian (31-14) and Madison Central (21-19). Pikeville averages 34.2 points per game and allows 9.8.

Russellville has won 11 in a row since a 49-35 loss to Glasgow on Aug. 27. Russellville averages 32.5 points per game and allows 10.7.

The Russellville Panthers are the top rated team in Class A according to the KHSAA’s RPI standings.


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