MOUNT WASHINGTON - For most football teams that reach a championship game in Kentucky, the season is pretty much smooth sailing with only a minor hiccup or bump in the road along the way.
Not for the Bullitt East Chargers in 2008. This season was one wild ride for the red and gold. This was a roller-coaster ride that was Badder than the Beast.
Bullitt East did not start the season well. In fact, the red and gold had a losing record midway through the regular season. There were times that the team just didn’t play that well.
Of course, there was a new coach and the transition did not happen as smoothly as many had hoped, including the new man, Doug Preston. Despite 19 seniors and high expectations, the Chargers looked, well, average.
In the third game of the season, the Chargers traveled to Shepherdsville to take on Bullitt Central, a team they had not lost to in over a decade. On a hot humid night, the Cougars rallied in the fourth quarter to win 30-27. After the game, the Charger camp looked like a MASH unit as ambulances transported three players to hospitals for dehydration.
Bullitt East was 1-2. The next week the Chargers lost 50-14 at home to Henderson County and the rumblings and grumblings in Mount Washington were starting to be detected on seismic machines throughout the Midwest.
Then Preston did what many Bullitt East fans considered blasphemous, he junked the split back veer and in one week installed a power wishbone offense.
It was make or break time for the new coach.
But the Chargers responded well. After just four days of practice with the new offense, the red and gold won a home game against then undefeated Marion County 13-10. There was a loss to Fairdale the next week, but then the Chargers started winning...a lot.
North Bullitt and LaRue County were two more victims before a double overtime loss to Manual. The regular season ended with a drubbing of Nelson County.
Suddenly, Bullitt East was hot despite entering the post-season with a 5-5 record. Four straight wins followed before the 15-13 loss to undefeated Bell County in the Class 4-A Kentucky State Championship game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
All was good again in Mount Washington.
Preston never doubted this team and he never let the players doubt themselves.
What about after the Bullitt Central game?
“I know it sounds like a broken record, but I was thinking of the kids at that point,” Preston on Monday of this week. “I knew we had to get better. We were down, but not at rock bottom. It turned out that Bullitt Central (winners of eight games) had a fine team.”
So did Henderson County, but the outcome should not have been 50-14. That weekend Preston slept very little. He knew that Bullitt East had been a split back veer program for almost 25 years. Preston knew the veer, but he was more familiar with the wishbone.
“We had a very good group (of players) that should have been better,” Preston said. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I had to do what worked for me. It wasn’t that anyone was wrong (supporting the veer). We just had to do what was right for me.”
That was a long weekend for the coach.
“I flip-flopped that weekend over it,” he said. “I didn’t decide until that Monday morning at school. I was typing up the scouting report before school and decided at that point to make the change.”
What some fans don’t recall is that there were two events far outside of Bullitt East’s control that affected the first half of the season.
First, there was the player collapsing and dying of heat at a practice at Pleasure Ridge Park the day before the Chargers were set for their second scrimmage that would have been against the Panthers. That scrimmage was canceled. Because they had opted to scrimmage at camp back in early August, the team went into the season with very little preparation under game conditions.
Next, the wind storm in the area in early September disrupted everything for a lot of teams. Bullitt East started that week practicing to take on Central High School. Then, Jefferson County canceled all games for its teams and Bullitt East was left without a foe. It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that the team found out it would be playing Henderson County.
That led into the big change with the offense. That worked out for the best.
“There was no option and no read,” Preston said of the limited offense that he could install in a week. “It is a traditional three-back wishbone. It’s nothing like what we were doing except it’s also run-oriented. It’s a power wishbone.”
With the offensive change, the Chargers also moved senior Zach McCarthy from tight end to running back. That might have been as big as the offensive switch. McCarthy became one of the area’s top rushing threats and also became a more effective blocker for senior running back Curtis Logsdon.
Still, as any coach will tell you, you have to block and tackle no matter what formations you line up in.
“You have to block and you have to tackle,” the coach said with a smile. “That is something we did well the second half of the season.”
The win over Marion County really turned the season around for the Chargers.
“I felt after the Marion County game that we could be successful,” Preston said. “I knew they were a good and highly ranked team. I knew if we could beat them that we were as good as anyone in the region.”
As it turned out, Bullitt East had to beat Marion County again in the second round of the play-offs, something they did by a 35-7 count to show just how far they had come since the middle of the season. The next week, Bullitt East beat North Bullitt 26-7 in the regional final.
The Chargers had beaten Marion County and North Bullitt by a combined six points in the regular season.
That led into the state semi-final showdown with Calloway County. In a game in which the two teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense, the Chargers prevailed 52-49.
As any coach will tell you, Preston was getting just what he wanted. The Chargers were playing their best football at the end of the season.
“We had a saying with the kids all year that the season is a marathon, not a sprint,” the coach recalled. “After we lost a few we told them we were playing for the end and not the beginning.
“I told them not to give up on themselves,” Preston noted. “The coaches would not give up on them. That’s the way it worked out.
“Before the last game we told them it was time to sprint,” the coach said. “The scouting report last week said ‘sprint, sprint, sprint.’ That was our unofficial motto.”
It ended up being a marathon worth sticking around to watch the finish.
To all Bullitt East fans, players and our community:
I want to thank all of you for your support for our football team this season. When I walked out onto the field at Papa John’s on Saturday and first viewed the Bell County crowd, I was impressed. But when I rounded the corner and saw the Bullitt East fans, I was inspired. I have never been more proud as a coach than that moment. You are the best.
We have many things to be proud of with this particular team. Becoming District, Region and Semi-State champs and State Runners-Up is a dream come true.
Many of you give much of your time in many ways to help make our football program special. I want to say Thanks to all of you that have called and e-mailed your appreciation for the hard work we put in this year. We always need help in operating a large football program like ours at Bullitt East High School.
A special thanks to the students, faculty and parents of Bullitt East for making me and my family feel so welcome in our first year. I want to make our football program the best in the state. We are well on our way. We have plans to renovate our locker rooms this year and hope to renovate our press box and somehow get a new scoreboard. Our players, parents and fans deserve it. I will do all I can to make it happen.
What a year. What a great senior class and football team. I will forever hold a special place in my heart for this team, our parents and fans. I can’t wait to get started on 2009. To the upcoming eighth-grade players, I want to extend an invitation to be part of a special football experience. To the over 90 young men from Bullitt East who have signed up to play football next fall, I say let’s get ready to go to work and represent Mount Washington and Bullitt County proudly in another great effort to make it back to the state championship.
Doug Preston, Head Coach