Wildcats seeking back-to-back 4A titles against Johnson Central

LEXINGTON – Franklin-Simpson has made playing for state championships a consistent theme over the past few years.

The Wildcats – known for their rich football history – suffered a 48-0 loss in the 2016 Class 4A state final but bounced right back with a 35-21 win in last season’s title game.

Now, in 2018, Franklin is once again playing for the trophy as it meets Johnson Central at 3:30 p.m. CST Saturday for the Class 4A KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl championship at Kroger Field in Lexington. As the Wildcats seek back-to-back titles, they’ll also be colliding with the same finals opponent for the third consecutive season.

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“We are all excited and humbled to be in this position again this season,” Franklin-Simpson head coach Doug Preston said. “As much as possible, we are approaching the game as we do every game. We are sticking to the same format we used last season for playoff practices, which means a lot less hitting and contact and more mental work for preparation. At this point in the season, the physical part is not the challenge for a team in my opinion.”

Franklin-Simpson, which is playing in its 10th state championship dating back to 1975, went 9-1 in the regular season and enters with an overall record of 13-1. The Wildcats’ lone loss this year came in a 36-14 defeat to South Warren – which on Sunday plays for the Class 5A state title – back on Aug. 31.

The Wildcats – just like in 2017 – have been led by an explosive offense that is powered by a dominant run game. Averaging 402.9 total yards per game, 347.2 of those yards come on the ground behind the dynamic running back duo of seniors Tre Bass and Carlos McKinney.

Bass, who now holds the single-season records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns at FSHS, has rushed for 1,963 yards and 29 TDs on 157 carries in 2018. McKinney isn’t too far behind Bass, having recorded 1,632 yards and 21 TDs of his own through 14 games. They’re averaging a combined 257 rushing yards each outing.

In addition to Bass and McKinney, Franklin-Simpson features a veteran senior class overall that has led the program to unprecedented heights during their time as Wildcats. Not only are they great athletes, but also people that Preston thinks the world of.

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“This group of seniors has been special in many ways,” said Preston. “Besides going to three straight state championship games – which has never happened in school history before this, they are a group I have grown very close to personally over the years. I know most of these kids as well as my own family members. There is a strong trust between all of us. I think that plays a role in our success.”

While Franklin-Simpson has had another successful season, Johnson Central has put together another successful one itself.

The Golden Eagles (13-1) – who also enter Saturday’s championship with just one loss – are appearing in their fourth consecutive state final, with all four coming from 2015-now. Johnson Central lost 36-6 to South Warren in 2015, defeated Franklin 48-0 in 2016 and fell 35-21 to the Wildcats in 2017.

Similar to Franklin-Simpson, Johnson Central is also led by a powerful rushing attack. As the Golden Eagles have racked up 5,152 rushing yards as a unit, standout running back Joe Jackson has tallied 2,203 of them – along with 29 TDs. JCHS averages 368 rushing yards per game, and Jackson is responsible for 157 of them.

Along with Jackson, quarterback Riley Preece plays a significant role for the offense having passed for 970 yards and seven TDs.

“They are a typical Johnson Central team; huge, physical and fast,” Preston said. “They have a dynamic player at quarterback in Riley Preece and an exceptional running back in Joe Jackson. They are a machine on offense and present many challenges.”

As the Wildcats would love to bring another title back home to Franklin this weekend, their primary focus is winning another one for the seniors to send them out the right way.

“It would mean more than I can express in words, but not for the obvious reasons,” Preston said of what it would mean to win Saturday. “I really want this game for these seniors and really no other reason. Also, to continue to add to the tradition here at Franklin-Simpson is a real honor.”

Tyler Mansfield@ByMansfield

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