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Almost exactly 25 years ago, on Nov. 28, 1987, a Shelby County team went into the state championship game as a big underdog against a powerhouse Northern Kentucky squad.
And before the Collins High School Titans take the field tonight against the favored Highlands Bluebirds, the players should take a minute to reflect on that Shelby County High School team, the one and only state championship football team from the county.
“We were a pretty good team, really solid,” said Reggie Hicks, the starting senior quarterback and one of the leaders of that ’87 team. “But my freshman and sophomore teams were the most talented. We had guys like Matt Axline, Bill Manica and Lee Tinsley.
“But in 1987, we played with more heart. We were all playing together. There were no stars. We had myself, Darryl Hicks, Marcus Stoner and Charles Warfield in the backfield; we called ourselves the ‘four horsemen.’ It didn’t’ matter who carried the ball or who scored. We just wanted to win.”
And win that team did.
Starting the season 3-0, the Rockets picked up big wins over Ballard, Lafayette and Henry County. But they followed that with a three-game losing streak, including two losses where then head coach Tom Becherer described the team at the time as “not playing well.”
“We played a tough schedule,” said Edmund Becherer, the coach’s son and a junior tight end on the team. “But I really think that’s what got us focused for the playoffs.”
Once back on the winning track, the Rockets ran up against a buzzsaw in Boone County, falling, 28-0.
The Rebels were the top team in the state, coming off a runner-up finish in 1986, and undefeated in ’87.
“Coach Becherer, after that Boone County game, he told everybody in the locker room that we’d see them again,” Hicks said. “Then, Monday at practice, he showed us tape of the Chicago Bears’ defense, and from then on we took a lot of pride in our defense.”
The Rockets bounced back and took care of Oldham County by scoring 10 fourth-quarter points in a 10-6 victory to make the playoffs.
From there, at 6-4, the team really started to come together.
“At this point we were battled tested,” Edmund Becherer said. “We had a lot of juniors on that team, but we had a small group of seniors that were really good leaders and good ballplayers. They had a lot of fight in them, and they didn’t want to lose.”
The Rockets came out in the playoffs and held off Henderson County, 14-13, topped Madisonville, 10-2, and beat Holy Cross, 14-7, to get to the title game and a rematch with Boone County.
“We wanted a second shot at them,” said Becherer. “We knew we didn’t play that well against them first time. We wanted a shot to prove that they weren’t twenty-eight-to-nothing better than us.”
Hicks said the Rockets changed a few things in the playoffs, something that would give them a little advantage in the game. But it was pulling into the stadium that really got the team fired up.
“We come rolling into the old Cardinal Stadium [at the Louisville Fairgrounds], and we‘re getting off the bus when we hear the announcer saying there was going to be a celebration party after the game at the old Executive West for Boone County and their fans,” he said. “Not that we really needed any more motivation, but that got us going.”
Becherer said the announcements continued during the game.
“I remember, in the first half, the PA announcer coming on and saying there was going to be a Boone County celebration. That gave us a little extra motivation,” he said.
The Rockets struck quickly.
On the opening kickoff, Boone County fumbled, and the Rockets’ Chris Chanda recovered, setting up a 22-yard field goal.
The Rockets’ defense then forced a Boone punt.
On their second possession, the Rocket found the end zone on a 2-yard run from Charles Warfield. The touchdown was setup by Hicks’ only completion of the game, a 35-yard pass to Stoner.
“That was huge, to get out front like that,” Becherer said. “Because, on paper, they were better than us.”
With a 10-0 lead, the Rockets held on to halftime, but Hicks would make his mark again.
The shifty quarterback, who paced the Rockets’ read-option attack, reeled off a 59-yard run from his own 11-yard line in the third quarter, setting up his TD that gave the Rockets’ a 17-0 lead.
“I can still remember that play,” Hicks said. “It was unbalanced to the right, and we’d come back and to the left on a read-option. We did a lot of misdirection stuff. We came back left, and there was nobody there.”
With that lead, and the Rockets’ stout defense, Shelby was able to hold on through the fourth.
“It was a good thing we had that lead,” Becherer said. “I think they kind of woke up in the fourth quarter and started coming at us pretty hard. The game got tougher as it went along. I think the final play, or maybe just their final play, Reggie got an interception.”
And that was just enough as the Rockets held on for a 17-14 win after two fourth-quarter TDs from Boone County.
Hicks said the Rockets just went into the game focused and ready.
“We went in and everybody said we couldn’t win it, but Coach Becherer and Coach [Hubie] Pollett had us so focused,” he said. “We just didn’t listen to what people had to say. We just played our game.”
Advice for Titans
Reggie Hicks, quarterback of the 1987 team, said he picked up some valuable advice going into that title game against undefeated and favored Boone County.
“In 1976 and ‘77, they came up short in the championship game. I knew a lot of those guys, and they just kept telling me to stay focused, don’t listen to what anybody’s saying about the game, and play our game,” he said. “I’ve seen this Titans team play, and they’re good. There’s a lot of similarities going up against a powerhouse Northern Kentucky team, and I’ve tried to tell them the same thing – stay focused and don’t listen to anybody about the game.”
Edmund Becherer, a tight end on the team who also has two sons, Bennett and Browning Becherer, and a nephew, Lawson Page, on the team said the Titans have a shot.
“They can win this game. It’s a lot like our game. They don’t put spreads on high school game, but I’d say we’re a pretty big underdog this time, too.”
But both said they’d be there and cheering for the Titans.
“I’d love to have some company from Collins on that state championship list,” Becherer said.
Added Hicks: “I wish Collins good luck. It’s a little mixed feelings because I’m a Rocket, and we’re still the only Shelby County team with the championship. But I’ll be proud if they win.”