A month after Chris Price signed to play football for Pikeville College, three more Henry County High School football players have also committed to play for the Bears next school year.
In a joint ceremony held inside the high school’s Media Room last Tuesday afternoon, Erick Butler, Lance Timberlake and Pete Baldwin accepted invitations to play for Pikeville. Price committed on Feb. 10, the first day of college football’s national signing period. With four players set to pack their bags and head 200 miles east in August, the 1,100-student NAIA program is taking notice of Henry’s recent success on the football field.
“I’m just excited to have all four of them attend our school. They should be able to have a very positive impact on our campus,” said J.P. Gunter, who is an assistant football coach at Pikeville, serves as the offensive line coach and special teams coordinator, and heavily recruited the Henry County players. “We’re making a big push to keep in-state Kentucky kids and that’s why we’re so excited to have these players.”
How much of an impact can they have at Pikeville? The potential is there, and it’s there right away.
“If they can come in and help us, then they will play,” Gunter said. “I think all four of them, with the quality they are, will have the opportunity to come in and compete that first season. The competition they bring in will either help push our other players to another level or get them to the level where they will be stepping into key spots themselves.”
Pikeville’s interest in the Henry County players started in the first weekend of the high school season when Henry beat Pike County Central, 20-6, on Aug. 21. The son of Joe Johnson, who is the head coach at Pikeville College, played for Pike County Central, and so he learned first-hand the kind of talent in New Castle. In a snow-ball effect, Price signed on Feb. 10 and Butler signed two weeks later, then Timberlake signed. Baldwin committed last Tuesday to complete the package.
“It’s very interesting how it all worked out,” Gunter said. “Our head coach knew the kind of talent Henry County had. These four young men were football players we knew needed to come to Pikeville. It so happens that all four of them enjoyed playing football together in high school and all of them will help us out.”
Pikeville College is located in eastern Kentucky close to the Virginia border. The athletic department is part of NAIA Division I, Region XI and the Mid-South Conference. The football squad is coached by Johnson, who was the defensive coordinator in 2008 and named the school’s fourth head coach in 2009. The Bears lost to Campbellsville University, 31-17, in the season finale to finish the year at 3-8 overall, 1-5 in the Mid-South Conference East Division. They had eight seniors.
Price, Butler, Timberlake and Baldwin are all hoping to be on the sideline when the Bears get ready for their next game in August. Former Henry County football coach Chris Engstrand, who coached the last four seasons at HCHS but resigned a few months ago, thinks these four players will make it.
“There’s always safety in numbers. You want to go somewhere where you already have a connection. They can ban together. That aspect of things is undervalued at times,” Ensgstrand said. “Of course there can be negatives like staying in your own circle too much, but the positive is you have someone to lean on. It should help them stick it out.”
During their four years at Henry County, the Wildcats accumulated a 28-19 overall record, made three straight trips to the Class 3-A State Playoffs, advanced to the state quarterfinals twice, and set a school record with 10 wins in a single season this fall. The Cats were 3-7 in 2006, 9-4 in 2007, 6-5 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009.
Price had a long list of schools he was interested in, but in the end went with Pikeville to become one of the school’s first signings for the upcoming class. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound lineman hopes to play right away. His decision to go with Pikeville was an easy one.
“I loved it. It just felt like the right school for me” Price said a couple of days after his singing. “I had the chance to go to a big school but it was a move I made because I felt like I’m going to be playing very competitive ball, it has strong academics and it’s in a close-knit community. It wasn’t so much about winning or losing but it felt like a family there.”
Butler, who started at middle linebacker all four years of high school and also played tight end, was one of the more sought after players in Henry County.
He was named All-State Honorable Mention as a sophomore, suffered through injuries as a junior, and was named Honorable Mention again as a senior. He was also selected and played in the East-West All-Star football game in December for the best seniors in Kentucky, and he has received numerous awards while in high school.
“Erick could have had a preferred walk-on spot at different Division I schools, but he won’t have to pay a dime at Pikeville and he’s ready to play there right now,” Engstrand said. “Actually, I thought it was a long shot for Pikeville to get him. I think he’ll be really successful from day one.”
A couple of weeks after Butler signed, Timberlake decided with Pikeville, too. Timberlake played wide receiver and linebacker for Henry County and Engstrand projects him to be more of a strong safety in college. Ensgstrand said he is “super aggressive, hard hitting, intelligent and has nothing but upside.”
Baldwin was the last of the four to sign, not fully committing until the morning of last Tuesday’s signing. He was Henry’s leading running back in the fall, becoming the first Henry player to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,002) in a season since Engstrand took over the program in 2006. Engstrand said he is “naturally gifted, explosive and tough to find behind the line.”
After four years of high school football, the four Henry County players will now continue their playing days at the next level. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
“I am extremely proud of these young men,” Engstrand said. “The stigma that kids from Henry County have is that they can’t go on to be successful, but that’s not true. This is where I get excited. As a coach, you hope these young men will serve in society and go on to do great things in life. It’s a special moment when you see these guys decide to go on to the next level. I’m excited for them.”
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