Through the first eight games of the season last year, the Pulaski County Maroon football team was on a proverbial roll, with a 7-1 record and scoring points in bunches.
Then, the wheels fell off.
In week nine in a regular season game against Southwestern, first-year quarterback Drew Polston suffered a torn labrum injury, and that began a dreaded tailspin for Johnny Hines and company.
Top receivers Jake Sloan and Grant Oaks also went down with injuries and never made it back to game action, and as a result, Pulaski County’s once promising season – a season that appeared for the longest time was headed for a regional title appearance and beyond – simply went down the drain.
The Maroons dropped their final three games of the season – two of those losses coming to arch-rival Southwestern -- including a 17-7 loss to the Warriors at PC Field in the opening round of the Class 5 A playoffs.
Just how bad was it for the Maroons without the big three of Polston, Sloan, and Oaks coming down the stretch last year?
Through the first eight games of last season, Pulaski County was averaging 32.5 points per game.
Over the course of those final three games last year – two losses to the Warriors, and a 38-7 setback to Tate Creek in the regular season finale -- the Maroons scored a grand total of only 21 points in those three contests.
Fortunately for coach Hines and Pulaski County, Polston is back this season for his junior year, and has come into preseason camp completely healed from last season’s shoulder injury.
Polston has looked great in the early going in training camp, and is ready to pick up where he left off last season. And last season before the injury at least, PC’s quarterback was pretty darn good.
As a sophomore last year – his first year as PC’s starter -- Polston more than proved that he was a gunslinger and was ready for the varsity level.
He completed 177-248 pass attempts in 2019, for an astounding 71 percent completion percentage, for 1,944 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Polston was also PC’s second-leading rusher last year, gaining 494 yards with two TD’s on the ground.
With Polston coming back for his junior season, and with senior running back/linebacker Tristan Cox returning – a Purdue University commit – Pulaski County has arguably two of the top players at their respective positions on both sides of the ball in the state of Kentucky.
Not only does Cox wreak havoc at his linebacker position to opposing offenses, but he returns this year for his senior season as PC's leading rusher, gaining 509 yards on the ground in 2019 with eight touchdowns.
Cox is also a valuable target coming out of the backfield, as he tallied 31 receptions last season for 252 yards and six TD's.
And, it’s no surprise at all when Hines says if those two can stay healthy in 2020, and have the kind of year that he expects them to have, Pulaski County football should bounce back and return as a genuine district and regional contender.
“We're thrilled to have both of those guys on our team -- there's no doubt about that," pointed out coach Hines.
"Tristan Cox is one of the top players in the state of Kentucky -- maybe the best," added the Maroons coach. "He's a Purdue commit, and he's going to be in the Big 10 Conference, and is going to be playing linebacker in the Big 10 down the road. He's a special kind of guy. Drew Polston was injured at the end of last year and had to have shoulder surgery, and he's worked extremely hard in the off season to come back. He's back healthy, he's 100 percent, and has no restrictions at all. He's really looked good in the early going, and we're very excited about having Drew back. He had a tremendous season going last year before the injury."
While Polston and Cox are two of the very best at their respective positions, it’s the unknowns on Pulaski County’s football team that may hold the key for Hines and company for the upcoming season.
The Maroons lost a ton of starters off 2019’s squad, and task number one for the PC head coach and his staff is to get players ready to fill those voids.
Hines says he’s got a multitude of good, young, and talented football players on the roster, but the one thing as a collective group they are lacking right now is game experience, especially at the varsity level.
"With the craziness we've had all this summer, and the lack of practices we've had with no spring practice and all the things that we normally do, we're still in a stage of evaluation with a lot of our young guys," stated Hines.
"We're going to be a work in progress, and the key to our success in the win and loss category is going to be how quick these young guys come of age and go out and are able to make big plays," he added.
So, who are some of these young guys who may not be household names yet for the PC fan base?
"Obviously Jake Shepherd and Kaleb Adams are two seniors that are back, that both played wide receiver and defensive back, and figure very prominently in our special teams games, and we think they're each going to have big seasons," said Hines.
"Some other guys to keep an eye on are guys like Barek Williams, who didn't play last year, and is a sophomore he came back out this year for football, and he's a very explosive player, and we look for him to be a big player on offense and special teams," continued the PC head coach. "Defensively, young guys like Cody Nichols who is a sophomore who got injured early last year is back, and has a lot of potential. Cade Sullivan is a sophomore with a lot of potential as well as another sophomore, Brady Cain -- who of course is the younger brother of Wiley Cain that everybody remembers. Evan Cherry is another cornerback who has had a very good summer, and there are some younger guys behind them, like freshman Logan Godsey, another freshman Harris Denmeyer, Braden Ping, and a guy like Skylar Sharp who will be a junior this season. Another freshman -- Zander Simpson -- is another freshman, and all these guys are making some noise back in our defensive secondary."
Chandler Godby is another kid coach Hines is very high on this year, who he calls one of the smallest players on the team, but is a player according to Hines that plays big and has a big heart.
Bryson Dugger is a backup quarterback, but Hines says he's too good of an athlete to be on the sideline, so fans will see him playing wide receiver in games this year.
Braden Gipson -- a junior tight end -- is yet another kid the PC coach is very high on going into the 2020 season, along with a newcomer Antonio Palmer.
And one final player is Donavan Abbott, who showed flashes of brilliance last season as a freshman running back, but suffered an injury about the mid-way point of the season that hampered him coming down the stretch of the 2019 campaign.
This year has been one of the toughest years for any head football coach to navigate through due to Covid-19, with preseason weight lifting and conditioning wiped out, as well as spring practice, spring football games, preseason scrimmages, and the list goes on and on.
Hines says while it has been a wild and wacky ride this year, through it all, he's grateful that his players are going to have a chance to play football in 2020.
"You have a set routine that you kind of go through starting in January with your off season program in the weight room, all the way into spring practice and beyond," stated Hines.
"Then, we come into summer and try to work out in early summer, take a big break, and then try to come back in late summer and begin training camp," added the Pulaski County head coach. "We normally have between 20-25 practices in the summer before the first game, plus you add those 10 practices back in spring in March, so you're looking at 30-plus practice sessions you've had with all of these kids before you go out and play your first game. This summer, we're looking at about nine practices, so that tells you a lot right there. Covid-19 has caused us to change up a lot of things, but our coaches and kids have handled it extremely well, and I'm so very proud of them. We've followed all of the protocols, and the kids have been here every day with a great attitude and are ready to go and ready to get the season underway."
Pulaski County opens the season tonight in the mountains of eastern Kentucky on the road at Belfry.
Kickoff is set to get underway at 7:30 p.m.