Pikeville holds on for 30-27 victory over Russellville in Class 1A finals

Mikie Benton, Russellville High School’s fourth-year coach and a former Kentucky Wildcats defensive back, tries to process his team’s 30-27 loss to Pikeville in the KHSAA Class 1A championship game on Friday afternoon at Kroger FIeld in Lexington. Russellville finishes its season 12-2.


LEXINGTON — Mikie Benton bided his time on the home sideline at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field, waiting for the postgame television interview that never happened.

But Benton waited.

And waited.

Then, as the Pikeville High School Panthers were escorted into the interview area, savoring their sixth KHSAA state championship in school history, Benton and two of his Russellville High School seniors, Chevis Elliott and Jaquis Todd, slowly made their way off the stadium’s artificial playing surface.

Elliott, Todd and their Russellville teammates were physically spent. Mentally exhausted. Trying to put a disastrous first half, at least on the defensive side of the football, in the rear-view mirror.

Easier said than done, of course, after Pikeville turned back Benton’s talented Russellville squad, 30-27, in the KHSAA Class 1A state championship game on Friday afternoon.

“It’s tough. We just made too many mistakes in the first half,” Benton said. “I’m proud of my guys, for the fight they showed in the second half. Their offensive line made it tough for us … At first, we were probably a little tight out there.

“I told the guys at halftime, ‘We haven’t played well, in this first half, and we’re still down just 10 points. You definitely saw a different team out there in the second half … We kind of just ran out of time.”

Senior quarterback Lennon Ries and the Russellville offense had the ball for just eight minutes in the first half of the Panthers’ 30-27 loss to Pikeville in the KHSAA Class 1A championship game on Friday. Russellville quickly took the momentum in the second half, on Jaquis Todd’s 47-yard scoring dash, but the Panthers offense struggled the rest of the way.

Benton, the former UK defensive back, guided Russellville to its first KHSAA title game appearance since 1990, the year he was born. He’s installed a winning football culture again at Russellville, but the school’s fourth state title will have to wait.

Pikeville finished its return to glory with a 14-2 record, while Russellville settled for a 12-2 mark and the KHSAA Class 1A runner-up trophy.

It was Pikeville’s second KHSAA state title in three years, and senior running back Blake Birchfield earned MVP honors after carrying the ball 30 times for a game-high 179 yards and two first-quarter touchdowns.

“We stayed focused, we kept things in front of us,” Pikeville coach Chris McNamee said. “I told Blake, over the summer, I said, “You’re gonna have (the running game) on your shoulders.’ He had a great game.”

Pikeville quarterback Isaac McNamee, the son of the longtime PHS coach, directed a ball-control attack in the first half, leaving Russellville scrambling to get back in the game.

Mikie Benton and the Russellville Panthers accept the runner-up trophy from KHSAA officials after Pikeville held on for a 30-27 victory on Friday afternoon in the Class 1A championship game at UK’s Kroger Field. Russellville finishes its fourth season under Benton with a 12-2 overall record.

The Panthers from Logan County — Pikeville’s mascot is the Panther, too — made that happen, against all odds, in the final 11 seconds of the first half.

Pikeville’s Aaron Chang drilled a 23-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the first half, putting his team in front 30-13, before Chris McNamee played the percentages, sending Chang out to execute a pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff.

Russellville senior Chevis Elliott fielded the low kick, found a seam near the left sideline and left a string of Pikeville players in his wake. Elliott was tripped up on a 72-yard return with 10 seconds left, and on the final play of the first half, Benton put his squad in the Wildcat formation, hoping to make something happen.

Senior running back Jovari Gamble took the snap from center, made a fake toward the line of scrimmage and lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to teammate Anthony Woodard.

It was all made possible by Elliott’s breathtaking dash on the kickoff return, and Woodard’s touchdown gave Russellville plenty of momentum heading into the second half.

“We were down two or three scores,” Elliott said, “and I knew I needed to make a play.”

Russellville players Chevis Elliott, left, and Jaquis Todd wait with Panthers coach Mikie Benton for the postgame press conference after Pikeville’s 30-27 victory over Benton’s squad in the KHSAA Class 1A state championship game on Friday. Russellville finishes its season with a 12-2 record.

Russellville’s defense opened the second half in impressive fashion, and Russellville’s Jaquis Todd turned a simple off-tackle play to the right side into a sensational 46-yard touchdown run, trimming his team’s deficit to just three points with nine minutes, 21 seconds left in the third quarter.

Senior quarterback Lennon Ries and the Russellville offense had three possessions the rest of the way, but could never get in the red zone. Benton’s Panthers turned the ball over on downs on the Pikeville 30-yard line with 2:15 left in the game, and they’d never get their hands back on the ball.

“We got down there, on that last drive … (Our) confidence was sky high,” Benton said. “I really thought we were going to be able to punch it in, go up and put Pikeville in a spot where they’d have to go and try to score quickly on us.

“Of course, that wasn’t the case … It didn’t work out like that, but the guys fought. They easily could have laid down, given up, but they didn’t do that … we definitely earned some respect from Pikeville.”

Ries completed just 6 of 15 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown, a 44-yard scoring strike to Woodard that tied the score at 13 with 2:25 left in the first quarter. Todd rushed for a team-high 134 yards and two touchdowns on a mere four carries, and Elliott anchored the Russellville defense, finishing with 10.5 tackles from his safety position.

The Panthers couldn’t record a sack against Isaac McNamee, a sturdy quarterback who minimized mistakes down the stretch for Pikeville.

It was a tough defeat for Mikie Benton and his Russellville players to process.

“We may not have won … but you saw what we did, for the community, out there,” Todd said. “We put Russellville back on the map.”

Pikeville running back Blake Birchfield accepts the MVP trophy after sparking his team to a 30-27 victory over Russellville in the KHSAA Class 1A championship game. It was Pikeville’s sixth state title and second in three years.