After falling one game short of perfection in last season's Class 5A championship, Pulaski County coach John Hines made sure this year's squad fulfilled its mission if given another chance — even with a couple of losses.
Earning that opportunity required a lot from the Maroons (13-2), who overcame a rash of injuries and consecutive late-season setbacks to Southwestern and Bowling Green, which rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat Pulaski County 49-14 in last year's championship. They rebounded to close with five straight wins including a 14-7 triumph over Graves County last month at Western Kentucky University to claim their first state title.
Pulaski County's perseverance and success under Hines earned his selection as Kentucky Coach of the Year by members of The Associated Press.
Though Hines has guided the Maroons to a 27-3 record the past two seasons, he called the state title "an unexpected thrill" and insisted that players took nothing for granted after last season's disappointment.
"If anything, being in last year's title game gave us a greater taste of what it takes to get there," Hines said. "Going 14-0 and losing on the biggest stage was devastating, but the hunger was in them and we weren't going to blow a chance this year."
Pulaski County's determination became even more apparent during a six-week stretch of injuries that claimed quarterback Riley Hall (broken collarbone) and many others.
The combination of the "one-game-at-a-time" and "next-man-up" philosophies that coaches preach carried the team down the stretch and even helped the Maroons avenge their earlier loss to Southwestern with a 24-16 win in the state playoffs.
That's when Hines believed the Maroons could achieve something special.
"We were so frustrated to be the team we were earlier in the year," said Hines, 117-76 in 16 years as head coach. "We didn't think we'd make it out of the first round of the playoffs. But there was just this never-say-die attitude about this team."
Pulaski County ended up fulfilling a career goal for Hines, who began as an assistant at the school in 1995 before becoming head coach four years later. His record includes a 21-12 postseason mark with four district championships and three regional titles and is now highlighted by the biggest trophy of all.
"That's always the goal every season, and it's why we go through the struggle," Hines said of winning the championship. "Many great coaches never get there, which is why it's special. It was certainly hard for us, but it's a great accomplishment to see how far the school has come."
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