BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL T.J. Maynard talked last week about “protecting the R,” and he didn’t only mean the one painted in the middle of Ivan McGlone Field.
Respect has been an ongoing theme for Russell all season. Toward that end, the Red Devils have an opportunity to make a statement on a state level on Friday when they play host to Louisville Central in the Class 3A, Region 2 finals.
“It started in preseason where Bath County was picked to win our district,” Maynard said. “It seemed like after (Russell started) 0-3, we didn’t get a lot of respect; we had to go earn it.
“Here’s just another opportunity for us to earn not only respect in our area but throughout the state.”
That desire goes back further than Russell’s 0-3 start to this season, and beyond the previous summer. The Red Devils’ senior class won just two freshman games as ninth-graders and is still fueled by that, their coach said.
“They have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, that they wanted to prove that they were better than what those two wins indicated,” Maynard said. “They’ve worked for the last four years to put themselves in this position, and we’re just excited to be here.”
That “here” is a first time showdown of traditional powers. The Yellow Jackets have earned elite billing with five state championships since 2007. The Red Devils boast two titles of their own, won in 1978 and 2005.
It’s the first time Russell and Central have met, which is exactly what the KHSAA was after when it instituted playoff cross-bracketing in 2017, changing which districts play each other in the postseason. Crossbracketing matched up the Red Devils and Class 3A, District 5 with a central Kentucky district last season before pairing them with Louisville-area-based District 3 this fall.
“One of the intended benefits to implementing cross bracketing was the opportunity to add a little spice to the playoff matchups,” KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said. “The input from our membership was that they wanted to play some different teams during the playoffs, which would hopefully add some excitement for the fans. There was also the added benefit of some cultural education for the student athletes, who are able to get out and see other parts of the state and communities different than their own.”
While Russell has never played Central, the Red Devils are no strangers to playoff showdowns with state powers. Russell has played Belfry in the second round of the playoffs or later eight times since 2004, including every year from 2014-16. Breathitt County and Corbin have also been late-round Red Devils playoff opponents this millennium.
That doesn’t mean playing the Yellow Jackets will be the exact same challenge for Russell.
“Our kids know what to expect from Belfry,” Maynard said. “Even though our kids know Louisville Central is a good football team and has a lot of tradition, it’s not someone that we’ve seen and don’t really know a whole lot about.”
This isn’t Central’s first go-around against an eastern Kentucky traditional
power in the playoffs, either. The Yellow Jackets met Belfry seven times in the state finals from 2007-16 and knocked off the Pirates, 60-21, in last year’s region final — a matchup moved up two weeks by the aforementioned cross-bracketing.
Central then fell to Corbin, 21-20, in the state semifinals, which provided a lesson for this season, said coach Marvin Dantzler.
“My message to (the team) was, you got five (playoff) games, so you have to play the state title game five times,” Dantzler said. “We don’t want to take any game for granted. We played so well last year against Belfry; I didn’t think we brought the same energy the next week against Corbin, and of course we lost by one. So we have to be able to get up every week and play at the same level week in, week out.”
The Red Devils (8-4), victors in eight of their last nine games, held off Waggener last week, 2320. Seeing the Wildcats gave Russell an idea what it’s getting into against the Yellow Jackets (10-2), whose only two losses were by one possession to Louisville Class 6A opponents Ballard and St. Xavier.
“Louisville Waggener and Louisville Central have similar speed,” Maynard said. “I thought Louisville Waggener had a lot of kids that can run; I think Louisville Central has a lot of those kids that can run that are also football players.
“We have some kids that can run, but we don’t have the number of kids that can run like Waggener did, so for our kids to see that speed, hopefully that helps prepare us for what’s coming in here Friday night.”
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