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Defending state champion Johnson Central opens season with showdown at Bell County on Friday


By Chad Hensley
Special to KyForward

Johnson Central was perfect (15-0) a year ago, winning the Class 4A state championship. And Bell County nearly finished with an unbeaten record (14-1) as well, falling in the Class 3A state title game to Belfry.

So when those two teams square off Friday night at Dudley Hilton Field in the season opener, one squad’s quest for perfection will come to an end in Week 1. Johnson Central visits Pineville and a facility affectionately known by Bell County fans as Log Mountain at 7:30 p.m.

The matchup will feature two of the most respected and tenured coaches in the entire state. Jim Matney is the head coach at Johnson Central and is just three wins shy of 300 career wins. Matney has an overall record of 297-130 in 35 seasons of coaching at both Sheldon Clark (18 seasons) and Johnson Central (17 seasons).

Johnson Central was perfect (15-0) a year ago, winning the Class 4A state championship. (Photo by Lisa Lemaster)

Dudley Hilton is in uncharted territory as a head coach in that he is just seven wins shy of the 400-win plateau throughout his 41 years as a head coach at Bell County, Breathitt County, Bourbon County and Taylor County. Hilton’s overall record is 393-123 and second all-time in Kentucky high school football history.

The game Friday will pit two teams that must replace a great deal of talent at the skill positions. Johnson Central must replace Ryley Preece at quarterback, Devin Johnson and Cody Rice at running back and Seth Dalton at wide receiver.

Preece was Mr. Do-It-All for the Golden Eagles as he passed for 1,223 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. He also ran for 679 yards and 14 touchdowns while intercepting four passes and returning two for touchdowns as a defensive back.

Johnson ran for 1,668 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Rice gained 694 yards on the ground and scored 15 touchdowns. Dalton hauled in 21 passes for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Gone from the Bell County lineup are London Stephney and Jason Jones on offense. Stephney passed for 1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns, while also running for 1,244 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jones was Stephney’s top target as he caught 48 passes for 968 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

Johnson Central returns standout offensive lineman Grant Bingham as well as Cam Willis and Owen Lemaster up front. Bingham has attracted the attention of many top college programs as he is a 4-star lineman with 17 scholarship offers, including 15 from Power 5 schools.

Johnson Central offensive lineman Grant Bingham (65) has received 17 scholarship offers, including 15 from Power 5 schools. (Photo by Lisa Lemaster)

“We have a lot of good, hardworking boys in our program,” said Matney. “Also, we return several starters, but we have a lot of players back who were able to receive valuable minutes last year on varsity. It afforded us some depth at several positions which we don’t normally have.”

“Every year the goal is the same, to win a state championship,” added Matney, who has led Johnson Central to the state title game the last five seasons and has a 66-8 mark in that span. “However, if that weren’t to happen, my goal is for us to get better each week and for our team to play as hard as they can every time we take the field.

“There are a lot of life lessons which can be gained by playing football. If we can prepare this group of young men to be great on the field, great in the classroom and in their daily lives, be great sons and fathers then we will have been successful.”

OTHER GAMES OF NOTE
Elizabethtown (3A) at Central Hardin (6A) – The battle of Hardin County was won by Central Hardin in 2019 by a 57-40 score. The 2019 game was the first between the two schools since a 2012 meeting in which Central Hardin posted a 51-20 victory.

Mayfield (2A) at McCracken County (6A) – Mayfield will look to gain some revenge as McCracken County pulled off a 45-35 upset last year, handing the Cardinals their only loss of the regular season. Mayfield eventually fell to Somerset 34-31 in the Class 2A finals on a touchdown as time expired.

Bowling Green (5A) at St. Xavier (6A) – The Purples hit the road to face the Tigers in what is expected to be a close game. The two programs have built quite the rivalry during the past nine seasons, with Bowling Green owning a 6-3 record over St. Xavier during that stretch.

Moeller at Louisville Trinity – When a school from Kentucky plays a team in the Greater Catholic League South Division, it will assuredly be one of the best in the state. Moeller is 1-1 on the season and will be halfway finished with its regular season after Friday. No matter what season it is, Trinity will be favored in Class 6A.

Pulaski County (5A) at Belfry (3A) – The Pirates are the defending Class 3A state champs, while the Maroons are looking to return to the Class 5A championship game — where they advanced to four straight years (2013-2016).

Lexington Christian (2A) at Louisville DeSales (3A) – This clash of two teams that will battle for a state title in their respective classes will take place on Saturday at 6 p.m. Lexington Christian returns a bevy of talent that was listed as the No. 1 team in their class by many polls before bowing out to district rival Somerset in the playoffs. DeSales lost a heartbreaker at home in the Class 3A playoffs to Belfry, 15-14 in double overtime.

Defending Class 4A state champion Johnson Central opens the season with a showdown at Bell County on Friday night. (Photo by Lisa Lemaster)


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