BY ROCKY STANLEY
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Belfry set to put strong Russell defense to its greatest test
Third-year Russell football assistant coach Josh Wills vividly recalls the last time the Red Devils took down Belfry.
Ten years ago, the standout linebacker and offensive lineman helped lead a buzzsaw defensive effort in Russell’s 19-0 state semifinal road victory — one of only four times the Pirates have been blanked since 1998.
“What I remember most is how focused we were as a team,” Wills said. “Usually in a big game, you just want to come out with a win. Everybody wanted to go up there and send a message going in to play Mercer County.”
The Red Devils, seeking back-to-back Class 2A championships, were on a mission to beat Belfry for the second consecutive year and get a matchup with top-ranked Mercer County, a new consolidation that many people thought belonged in Class 3A. Russell dropped a 15-12 heartbreaker in the final despite another outstanding performance on defense.
Wills and other members of the Red Devils’ 2006 squad were honored last week at Henry R. Evans Stadium prior to Russell’s 56-14 blitz of Pike County Central.
On Friday night, the Red Devils hope to snap a streak of four playoff losses to Belfry when the teams meet Friday night at CAM Stadium.
Russell and its “Bad Boys” defense will be trying to stop Belfry’s march toward an eighth consecutive state championship game. The powerhouse Pirates are on a roll with three straight state titles and many observers rate coach Philip Haywood’s current team among his best.
“I thought Belfry was the best team in the state last year other than Male,” Russell coach T.J. Maynard said of the undefeated 6A state champs. “I think they are the best this year other than Trinity (ranked No. 1 in 6A).”
At the same time, Maynard loves the direction his team is heading.
“We’re playing well and will be prepared,” said Maynard, whose team practiced Wednesday at Ironton to get accustomed to Belfry’s artificial surface. “We are going to see if they are better than us.”
Russell (10-1) will rely on another stout defense to slow down Belfry’s vaunted ground game — now more than 4,000 yards for the season.
“It’s going to be a battle in the trenches,” said Wills, who works with both Russell lines as well as serving as freshman head coach. “We’ve seen most of their team from the last three years. A lot of them played as sophomores. The past three years they’ve gotten bigger, faster, stronger. The thing about this team is their offensive and defensive lines. They’ve dominated. At the same time, I’ve not known a Belfry team to not have a strong line.”
The Pirates (11-1) know what it’s like to be tested, including an early season loss to Knoxville Catholic and wins over physical Cabell Midland and Johnson Central teams. Haywood sees another tough challenge on the way.
“Russell’s a very good defensive team,” he said. “They have not given up many points to anybody. They have good size, run to the ball well and are well coached. They don’t give up big plays, so you are going to have to do things to move the ball against them.”
It begins up front defensively with Ryan Stump, Jacob Pierce, Austin Braden and Seth Deboard. The group quickly took control last week, holding Pike County Central to minus-6 yards in the first quarter as the Red Devils jumped out to a 28-0 lead.
“Our ‘D’ line is a monster,” said Maxx Blackburn, who is joined by Blake Thompson and Evan Ison in Russell’s linebacking trio. “It’s hard to block those guys on the line and that lets the backers make plays.”
Thompson leads the team with 88 tackles.
The secondary is another strong suit with safeties Landon Brewer and Nick Conley joined by cornerbacks Drey Boehm and Nathan Brinkman.
Russell’s takeaway total stands at 29. Boehm leads with six interceptions and nine of his teammates have picked off at least one pass. Deboard’s three fumble recoveries make him the team’s frontrunner, followed by Stump, Thompson and Brinkman with two apiece.
Like Wills, Haywood hasn’t forgotten the night in 2006 that Russell’s defense stonewalled the Pirates.
“We laugh about that one now, but we didn’t back then,” said Kentucky’s winningest coach with 414 victories.
“We could have played for a week and not scored against them. Russell had a great game plan and players to execute the plan. We learned a little bit from that.”
Wills said Belfry’s option offense has evolved since the 2006 season, transitioning from the Wishbone to a Flexbone attack with two wings and a fullback.
“It provides a vertical threat that’s made them better,” he said. “Basically they use four, maybe five, plays and run them well. It’s definitely going to be a game you want to see. I have confidence in our team. They come to play every week. Our guys are smart, savvy and able to take advantage of weaknesses if we can find them.”
That’s the hard part Friday. Belfry beat Russell 42-12 and 33-0 in the past two playoffs.
“It’s always been a great series,” Haywood said. “I think it’s been a classy series. We’ve always had a lot of respect for Russell’s program ... coach (Ivan) McGlone all those years and now coach (T.J.) Maynard carrying on that tradition that’s expected at Russell.”
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Landon Brewer of Russell pulls away from Ashland’s Cameron Gillum for a touchdown.
Russell assistant coach Josh Wills walks the sideline during the Red Devils’ season-opening 7-6 win over Greenup County. In 2006, Wills played a key role in the team’s last playoff victory over Belfry.
MARTY CONLEY | FOR THE DAILY INDEPENDENT