September 15, 2018 – Hazard, Kentucky / NATHAN LYTTLE – Bluegrass Sports Nation Perry Central Football Columnist
The Perry Central Commodores are 4-0 as they prepare for their first district matchup of the season next week against Letcher Central. They are averaging more than 44 points per game and a handful of Commodores are among the state’s best in terms of rushing, scoring, kicking, tackling, sacks and fumbles. But we’ve seen this movie before.
The Commodores are no stranger to hot starts, but Perry’s fans are also all-too-familiar with cold finishes. The boys in red and black have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. In fact, the school only owns two postseason wins in the history of the program. Perry Central has never won a district title on the gridiron. Those are cold, hard facts and they are hard to talk about for one simple reason. Oddly enough, it is the same reason that has led more than 1,000 young men to don red and black and lace up their cleats every Friday night in the fall for more than two decades: pride.
“Basically growing up on that field, being there from the time I could walk, I just couldn’t wait to get to high school and put the jersey on,” said former Commodore Austin Pray.
Pray played for the Commodores from 2009-2012. Recently, he found his way back to the program to work alongside the Commodores with his father Keith. Austin says the pride current and former players exhibit has inspired him.
“I think really my senior year, when they had the reunion during the last game played on the old field, I think that’s when I really realized how special it was,” Pray recalled. “Seeing the pride a lot of these older guys had for the program was amazing; even without a lot of success over the years. I had heard stories from my dad about all these guys he had coached, but actually seeing them come back and wearing their old jerseys showed me a lot.”
Pray was a freshman In 2009 when Perry Central got off to a start eerily similar to this season. Perry started off 4-0 and averaged 50+ ppg. The team was led by senior quarterback Jordan Amis. The undersized quarterback was known for his speed and heart on the field. When you ask him about his time playing for the Commodores, his pride shines through.
“Halfway through the first quarter of our game against Hazard, my brother was ejected for fighting and there I had to step in and take over in front of thousands of people. Keep in mind I’m 15 years old and 140 pounds soaking wet,” Amis said of his first time playing quarterback for the Commodores. “I remember to this day walking straight up to Brandon Willis (senior running back at the time) and saying ‘Brandon, I can’t do this’ He grabbed me by the face mask and said ‘Yes you can. Let’s go. I got your back.’ We marched straight down the field, and to cap the drive off, I hit Brandon Jones on a slant for a six-yard touchdown. When the ref held up the touchdown signal it sounded as if an explosion was set off. My head was swimming. It’s very hard to put that feeling into words, but let me tell you it’s something you never forget. I still say we lost the game because of a bull crap illegal procedure penalty called on Brandon Willis. But, man, that was a crazy game.”
Amis won plenty of games with the Commodores over the years, but his senior year they seemed poised to really break through and possibly make a run in the playoffs.
“When you consider that was my last go-around as a Commodore football player, the 2009 season was like an emotional roller coaster for me,” Amis said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better start. The offense was explosive, putting up a ton of points. The defense was playing lights out, hard-nosed football. We beat Breathitt county the third game of the season for the first time in the history of Perry Central football. That’s still one of my favorite memories as a Commodore.”
Amis aptly matched his season to a roller coaster, because things really went downhill once district play began.
“We were probably on our high-horse a bit going into the fifth game of the season, but at the same time, we knew we were going to Letcher and that’s not an easy place to go get a win still to this day. We played a good game but still came up a little short,” Amis recalled. “We rallied the troops and got a couple more wins under our belt before going to Harlan County. In my opinion, that game at Harlan county ended our season. We blew a 14-0 lead during the final three minutes of the game. It was an absolutely heartbreaking loss. That game alone took us from being a two-seed in the district to a four-seed. We were a 7-3 ball team going to play a very good Pulaski county team first round of the playoffs. It was just a crushing blow. We still went to Pulaski and put up a good fight against them.”
While the Commodores lost their leader in Amis going into the 2010 season, the team made some more noise with a new head coach in the 25-year-old former state champion Justin Haddix.
“Being a Head coach is something I wanted and I had been under two guys: Mark Nelson at Greenwood and then obviously Mike Holcomb a three-time state champ. I wanted the pressure and was very blessed to be a head coach at a young age,” Haddix said.
This year the Commodores got off to an even hotter start than before. In fact, in Haddix’s first season, the school had their best start in history: six straight wins. But it was another rough year for the Commodores in district play. Austin Pray was making a name for himself as a sure-handed target in the middle of the field that season.
“Early on, winning those games under Coach Haddix, the emotions on the team were so high. Especially after beating Breathitt and Letcher,” Pray said. “Going into the Clay County game, we had a couple of guys banged up and it just seemed like, after that loss, we had a hard time dealing with it. Our emotions went from sky-high to almost as low as possible nearly overnight and we never could right the ship. I think after winning those games early, we kind of started looking too far ahead, instead of taking it a week at a time like we should have.”
But 2011 was a little different. Senior quarterback Kyle Huff had a stable of wide receivers that rivaled anyone in the state: Daryl Beatty, Jay White and Austin Pray. Senior linebacker Matthew Robinson was among the state’s leaders in tackles and was a huge part of the running game. The team was as good as ever and finally got it done in the postseason.
“We set records there for first playoff wins and most wins in a season,” Haddix said of his time at Perry Central.
Haddix was at the helm of the Commodores for four years before moving onto Corbin. He and the Redhounds are coming off a 3A runner-up finish. Matthew Robinson said the 2011 season was huge for the program.
“Winning the first playoff game made me very proud and relieved,” Robinson said. “We finally got the monkey off our back for the program to move forward.”
And move forward the program did, but the success of 2011 did not carry over as many thought it would. Haddix’s team would manage to upset North Laurel in 2013 to earn the school’s second playoff win before he left to take the reins at Corbin.
“From the 2011 season when we were 9-3 we have won 4,6,1,2,2, and 7 games. That in itself with us starting 4-0 this year shows we have come a long way,” said District Athletic Director Eddie Browning. “Since then, we have completely changed our whole philosophy. We were a wide-open offense that relied on a lot of finesse to win games. We had a lot of good athletes at that time and we had a lot more players. As time has gone by and enrollment has dropped and our roster numbers have dropped, so we have changed that philosophy to a hard-hitting, smash-mouth type of football team. We get out in the trenches now where in those prior years we would beat teams with our pure athletic ability. I’m not really saying the decrease in numbers necessitated the change in philosophy, but the hiring of Coach Tom Larkey and Ovie Canady came at a time when our program needed that change in philosophy.”
And that brings us to this year. Commodores young and old have a confidence in this staff and the players. They believe the time is now to break through and win that elusive district title.
“Perry Central has got themselves a very good coach,” Jordan Amis says of Coach Canady. “Winning a district championship is not easy. I could go into them being a spread out county, all the logistic hardships they have to face, how jobs are forcing families to leave the area and all that stuff. But the bottom line is it has to start with a group of kids who push one another and hold each other accountable.”
“I think Coach Larkey and Coach Canady have done a great job and I’m glad to see Perry 4-0,” said Justin Haddix.
“This year’s team has a great chance to win the first district title,” Matthew Robinson said. “Limit mistakes and penalties on both sides of the ball and I think the district is Perry Central’s this year.”
Coach Ovie Canady called into WSGS’s Sports 101 talk show Thursday night to talk about the team and when asked about what the team needs to win a district title he was very forward and very simple.
“We just can’t lose these ballgames. We’re supposed to win,” Canady said. “Last year we had Whitley County beat and gave it away. We didn’t have any momentum moving forward and we had Woolum who was suspended for the Harlan County game. We can’t afford to lose players and we have to stay healthy. We just can’t lose these games.”
Looking back in the record books and reminiscing – or lamenting – about the past can be helpful, but only if you take what you learned and apply it to your current situation. The one thing that carried this family through past failures and struggles over the years will be what carries them to glory in the years to come: Commodore Pride.
Anchor down, men.