Round three.

The rubber match.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s the third straight season Johnson Central and Frankilin-Simpson are meeting in the Class 4A KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl state championship.

The first meeting, in 2016 at Western Kentucky University, Johnson Central won 41-0 for its first-ever state football championship.

Last season, Franklin-Simpson avenged the loss and came away with a 35-21 win.

“This is the third time in a row we’re playing Franklin-Simpson for the state championship,” Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said. “This is our fourth straight trip to the state championship game and I’m thankful for that. I might be the most thankful for that because I’m just so proud of our kids. We have an unusual bunch of kids here at Johnson Central. It’s rare that a county school plays in four straight state championship games. I think about 75 percent of the time a private school or independent school wins the state championship in whatever class, so I’m proud of what our guys were able to accomplish. I’m proud that we are a public school and accomplished this and the other thing I’m proud about our guys is that all of the players on our roster came from our feeder schools. We don’t have any outside guys on our roster. We brought them up through our feeder programs and that is unusual these days. I’ve got a multitude of reasons to be thankful for this team and I’m humbled by this. I come from a humble background growing up on Pond Creek and nobody knows how much this means.”

The two teams will try and break the tie this afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in Lexington at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field. 

Johnson Central’s road to the state championship wasn’t easy. 

The Golden Eagles jumped out on Knox Central 21-0 after the first quarter last Friday night in the Class 4A state semifinals, but then three straight turnovers allowed Knox Central to get back in the game and cut the lead to 14-0 and more importantly swing the momentum of the game.

“It from me thinking if we score one more time, we might get a running clock and have this game in hand, to thinking that we might get beat,” Matney said. “But our guys responded after three straight turnovers. That just speaks to the resiliency of mountain kids. After those turnovers and the momentum swing, they could’ve folded, but they didn’t, they responded.”

As a sophomore, Johnson Central running back Joe Jackson was named the state championship MVP and capped off a 2,000 yard season with the state championship.

As a junior, Jackson had to watch his teammates fall in the finals to Franklin-Simpson.

“In two of the three years, two of our best player were injured or not playing at all in the state title game,” Matney said. “We saw that with Joe (Jackson) last year. He was the MVP of the game as a sophomore. We were the underdog even if Joe would’ve played and not many people gave us a chance, but we fought hard in the championship game last year.”

Golden Eagle quarterback Ryley Preece led the way going four for nine passing for 180 yards and two TDs. 

But the Golden Eagles only rushed for 52 yards.

“I’ve known how important the line is since I was a running back at Belfry,” Matney said. “Most games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. I knew that as a player many years ago. As a running back, I got a lot of credit at Belfry, but I knew that the line was the guys making the blocks and getting a push and we’ve got an incredible line here this year.”

Last season, Johnson Central was the underdog going in against Franklin-Simpson.

This season, Johnson Central is entering the state championship with the mentality to win.

“The truth is, that not many people gave us a shot last season,” Matney said. “We were the underdog just getting there. We had to replace our entire secondary from the year before and just to get to the finals took a tremendous effort from our guys. Then to lose Joe (Jackson) that might’ve been the most difficult thing knowing what a great game he had the year before.”

This season’s success is much more than just what goes on Friday nights.

It starts with the practices, but it’s even more than that.

The support from the school and community have played a big part in the Golden Eagles’ success.

“Our community have got behind our staff and players and gave us so much support,” Matney said. “There have been three things that have been so important to us. We’ve got great administration at the school. That’s the first thing. The super independent and the school board have got behind us and supported us in every way we could think of too. And the third thing is the community support. When you combine those three things, it helps us settle in and get the job done because we know we have so many people behind us and supporting us along the way. Our administration, our community and our school board have just given us such tremendous support and it really helps these guys.”

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