The Harlan County Black Bears won’t have much time to erase the memories from last week’s hard-fought loss to Belfry as they host another mountain power on Friday. This time it’s Knox Central that will travel to Coal Miner’s Memorial Stadium. Scott Russell’s Panthers have opened the season with three straight wins and are currently ranked seventh in the WYMT Mountain Top 10 and ninth in the state in Class 4A.
“We get over that stuff real fast. It was a loss, but we got back to what we have to do in film session on Sunday. We know we have more to do this year than keep our minds on losing one game to Belfry,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “We are always trying to improve on everything we do. We will concentrate on Knox Central and hopefully can hold them to a lot less yards than we did Belfry.”
Much like Belfry, the Panthers will provide a physical test for Harlan County. Knox Central is led in the backfield by running back Jonathan Gist. The senior was often overshadowed by all-state selection Jeffrey Canady last season but still managed to rush for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“They have got a good physical football team. Gist is an outstanding player back there at tailback. They have some good blocking backs and a strong line,” Larkey said. “Knox Central is a real physical football team. We have been trying to work on stopping the power game in practice.”
Gist will be joined in the backfield by Matthew Barger. The junior will take over as the signal-caller after starting the season at wide receiver. Barger is one of the region’s top basketball players and will provide the Panthers with a dual-threat option under center.
Both Gist and Barger will have to contend with a stingy Harlan County defense led by one of the state’s top linebackers in Carson Whitehead.
“The biggest thing is trying to find ways to move the football. Their defense does a great job of stopping the run, and that is what lot we love to do,” Russell said. “(Whitehead) is a heck of a football player. He is one of the top linebackers this side I-75. I have not seen one better. He makes great reads. It will take a couple of bodies to block him.”
Harlan County will look to get the offense back on track. The Bears averaged 45 points per games in the first two weeks, but were limited to 12 points last week. The Bears will likely continue to turn to the ground game. However, success in the running game could be made more difficult this week by a Panther defense that is sure to load the box.
“They will put a lot of people in the box on us like they did last year. We have to concentrate on getting a little speed outside on the corners. I don’t know if we can line up and run through this football like we can most because they are going to stack box,” Larkey said. “They are a very strong football team and really get after it hard in the weight room themselves. We have to figure out how to get the ball outside and use our speed.”
Harlan County was impressive against the Panthers in the Southeastern Kentucky Conference Gridorama before the season. The Black Bears downed Knox 36-7 in the scrimmage, including scoring 20 straight points in the first 10 minutes. Despite that outcome, Larkey expects a more difficult test on Friday.
“The kids realize this is the real thing. Neither team took the grid real serious. When you put the varsity out there for 48 minutes anything can happen,” Larkey said. “We have to be ready because it’s going to be a tough football game for us.”
Russell also said the SEKC scrimmage was a good experience for his team.
“I am glad we went down there and let the kids see that atmosphere,” he said. “A lot of kids come in there and hear ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.’ That entrance can be real intimidating.”
While the Panthers weren’t successful against Harlan in the gridorama, Knox Central could enter this week’s game with some confidence. That’s because the Panthers were one of just three teams to defeat Harlan County last season — a 12-6 defensive struggle at home.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.