Paducah Tilghman and Belfry reunite for a rematch of the 1985 state championship

·5 min read
Belfry head coach Philip Haywood roamed the sidelines as his team took on DeSales in the Class 3A state semifinal game. Nov. 29, 2019
Belfry head coach Philip Haywood roamed the sidelines as his team took on DeSales in the Class 3A state semifinal game. Nov. 29, 2019

Over the course of 45 years and a state record 465 wins, Belfry head coach Philip Haywood has forgotten many victories and defeats throughout his career. But days before the Kentucky high school football legend's 15th championship appearance, Haywood still remembers the first time he coached against Paducah Tilghman.

The year was 1985. Mullets were in, the No. 1 movie in the world was "Back to the Future" and Haywood was in his second year coaching the Pirates.

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Back then, Haywood was still just the newest import from Prestonsburg, but he was well on his way to instilling a championship-winning culture at Belfry. The only thing that stood in his way was the Blue Tornado.

In the 1985 Class 3A Championship game, Haywood's Pirates had no answer for a tough well-coached Paducah Tilghman team. Allan Cox led the Blue Tornado to a 29-14 win and the second state title in school history. Belfry's defeat was humbling and served as a catalyst to its emergence as top-tier program over the past three decades.

Approximately 420 miles away, the Blue Tornado relished its victory over Belfry but wouldn't experience the same level of consistency as the Pirates. Nine different men have coached Paducah Tilghman since 1985, and there's only one championship to show for it (2009).

In that same span, Haywood and Belfry have won seven titles and eagerly await a rematch.

"They got us back in 85," Haywood said. "It's almost too far back to remember, but we certainly remember."

After all these years, Belfry (8-6) and Paducah Tilghman (8-6) will meet again at high noon in Saturday's Class 3A Championship game at Kroger Field. No one playing in Saturday's game was alive during the first meeting, but the both teams believe the spirit of the first meeting will be felt throughout the game.

"My uncle played for Tilghman and he was on that 1985 team when they played Belfry," Paducah Tilghman WR/S Brian Thomas said. "It's funny how time repeats itself."

And repeat itself it did. When the Blue Tornado and Pirates faced off the first time, a young coach was making his first championship appearance. Paducah Tilghman first-year head coach Sean Thompson makes the last dance for the first time in his career after instilling a winning culture back into the program ... even though things didn't start off well.

After narrowly winning his debut, Thompson and Blue Tornado ran out of wind during a COVID stoppage and a four-game losing streak. Back-to-back wins over Trigg County and Henry County were a sign of Tilghman's potential. But by the postseason, the Blue Tornado more closely resembled a summer's breeze after dropping two of their last three.

More: KHSAA Class 3A football final: Players to watch, picks for Belfry-Paducah Tilghman

Led by freshman quarterback Jack James — who Thompson describes as a gunslinger — consistency was an issue early in the season. Interceptions and poor decision-making were the trade off of big play ability.

James' three picks could've costed Paducah Tilghman its 31-28 second-round win over Union County. Moving forward, the freshman knew he'd have to step up for his team. And he did. Over the last two weeks, James has thrown for over 500 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Paducah Tilghman quarterback Jack James is pursued by Christian Academy of Louisville's Samuel McCoun. Nov 19, 2021
Paducah Tilghman quarterback Jack James is pursued by Christian Academy of Louisville's Samuel McCoun. Nov 19, 2021

"I've been very happy with my playoff play," James said. "I haven't thrown picks these last couple games and I've dealt with that all season long. I'm happy I've been able to keep the turnovers to a limit."

Nobody gave Paducah much of a shot against No.1 CAL and No. 2 Glasgow. The 41-34 thriller and 39-20 beatdown were shocking. Thompson wasn't even surprised.

More: Seizing opportunities: How Paducah Tilghman pulled off a KHSAA playoff upset at CAL

"We didn't feel like those wins were upsets," Thompson said. "We believe in order to be successful right now everybody has to buy in ... we're just going out and showing everybody what we can do."

Like Thompson, Haywood's team also had to prove the pundits wrong throughout the playoffs. After starting off the season 0-5, the Pirates ripped off four-straight wins before a 48-22 loss to Johnson Central sat them at 4-6 heading into the postseason.

"We almost prepared for that as a coaching staff," Haywood said. "We knew we had a very difficult schedule starting off and maybe this was the most inexperienced team we've had in some years but we said we've got to be positive with this group and stick to our philosophy of getting a little bit better each day."

While Paducah Tilghman prefers to attack defenses with a well-balanced game plan, Belfry still prefers to do things the old-fashioned way. The Pirates have attempted only 20 passing attempts, in part to its devotions to the triple-option offense.

Belfry running back Isaac Dixon (3) found some daylight against the DeSales defense in the Class 3A state semifinal game. Nov. 29, 2019
Belfry running back Isaac Dixon (3) found some daylight against the DeSales defense in the Class 3A state semifinal game. Nov. 29, 2019

Senior Isaac Dixon (155 carries, 1610 yards, 24 TDs) is the main threat an offense that features Zayne Hatfield (599 yards, five TDs) and Dre Young (588 yards, seven TDs). Even though Belfry runs the ball 96 percent of the time, quarterback Caden Woolum has thrown five touchdowns this season.

Don't expect to see Woolum in the shotgun on Saturday. Even though Paducah Tilghman knows what Belfry's going to do, Dixon feels confident that Belfry's smash mouth style of football can carry the Pirates.

"You probably do know what we're going to do but you still can't stop it," Dixon said "We've run this offense for many many years and it's hard to stop us because how we play. We practice getting beaten up, we run and not get tired and I just think it's hard to face a team that's willing to sacrifice everything to win."

The hardcore, physical, win-at-all cost mindset that Dixon speaks of has long been apart of Belfry's culture since before he was in diapers. Haywood has spent a lifetime building it. Even as he approaches appearance number 15, the excitement is still the same.

"It never changes," Haywood said. "I think that's the reason as coaches such as myself and the few around the state that have done it for even longer than I have that's why you keep doing it."

Follow Courier Journal reporter J.L. Kirven on Twitter @JL_Kirven for more updates on Louisville prep sports.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: KHSAA football: Paducah Tilghman and Belfry reunite for a rematch

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