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It might be easy to forget the real reason Anderson County is hosting Conner for a high school football game Friday night. But that is the nature of the beast these days.
Contrary to popular opinion, the big story is not that Drew Barker is coming to town. Yes, it's that Drew Barker, the guy that walks on Southeastern Conference water, if you were to listen to some University of Kentucky football fans.
Barker, who is ranked the No. 7 pocket passer in the nation by Scout.com and is undoubtedly the favorite to win the state's Mr. Football award, will be visiting Anderson County in the second round of the state playoffs. Suffice it to say he's good. Really good.
But Barker's appearance will actually be the No. 2 story when the Bearcats and Cougars kick it off for the second time in three years. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.
It will be the Class 5A, Region 3 semifinal. The winner moves on to the regional championship game. The loser turns in the helmets and shoulder pads next week.
Anderson will be going for its third regional final berth in four seasons. The Bearcats lost a heart-breaker to John Hardin in the 2010 regional final, then after a realignment, defeated Conner, 31-30, in a thriller two years ago.
Conner will be shooting for its second regional berth in three years. Last season, Conner made it to the second round before losing at Franklin County.
Before the 2013 season, most observers felt the teams could meet in the playoffs, but in the regional final again. Most pre-season analyses had the Cougars and Bearcats as the top two teams in the region with Conner as the slight favorite to make it to Bowling Green out of the eastern half of the state. However, Conner fell at South Oldham in mid-season and had to settle for the No. 2 seed from District 5.
Last week, the Cougars held off Montgomery County, 30-27, in the playoff opener to improve to 8-3. Anderson is 9-2.
Even though Anderson routed Montgomery in late September, Anderson coach Mark Peach says his team is in for “a great challenge.”
Obviously, Barker, who could have had his pick from nearly every major college in the country, is a big reason. A two-way threat, Barker has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2578 yards and 32 touchdowns this year. He's also Conner's leading rusher with 733 yards and nine scores.
“He has all the tools to be a successful quarterback,” says Peach, who was very impressed with Barker two years ago. “He has great leadership skills, a big arm, is very elusive, is very hard to bring down and he is always, always, always looking downfield to throw even with people hanging all over him.”
Last Friday, Barker was 17-for-28 passing for 233 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran 11 times for 49 yards in the win over Montgomery County.
Peach notes that while Barker's game is worthy of the lofty national rankings, the Cougars are far from a one man show.
“They have a running back that played defense against us in 2011. He is playing both ways now,” Peach says of Jesse McKeehan, who ran for 75 yards and a touchdown on six carries against Montgomery County. On the year, however, he's been more effective as a receiver with 417 yards.
Receiver Andrew Way snagged seven passes for 85 yards against Montgomery. He's hauled in 80 passes this season for 886 yards.
Peach says Conner has good size in the line. “They are solid on both sides of the ball,” he says.
The Rating the State rankings that appeared in Monday's Lexington Herald-Leader list Anderson as a slight favorite. The Bearcats are ranked sixth in Class 5A, Conner is ranked seventh.
Having Barker playing at Hollie Warford Stadium is exciting for the Bearcats and the huge legion of Kentucky fans in the area. Peach acknowledges and embraces that fact.
“That is part of the charm of a tournament,” he says, “but when you advance in the playoffs, there is a certain high level of execution you have to have if you are going to advance.”
Bearcat injury update
Anderson appears to be healthy for the first time since the Franklin County game a month ago.
Ross Cox, who suffered a thigh bruise the following week at East Jessamine, was moving well against Cooper. He had only been cleared for contact two days before and Peach held him out of contact drills last Thursday.
“I am fine physically,” Cox said Friday night.
Zachary Carmichael, who suffered a hip flexor injury in the regulary-season finale at Collins, appeared to have no complications against Cooper.
Linebacker Huston Page played with a shoulder injury and is improving, but running back Chris Toomey did not see action, even though he dressed for the Cooper game. He is expected back this week.
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