Despite a much closer final score, Harlan County’s second trip to the state semifinals was heartbreakingly similar to its first. Two years after falling to Highlands 34-6, the Black Bears reduced that margin to 17-7 on Friday, but fell just short of a trip to Bowling Green and the Class 5A Championship against another northern Kentucky opponent.
“I think our kids played hard. They worked hard in practice all week and were ready for the game. We just didn’t come out here and execute and made a few mistakes,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey.
After falling behind by a score, the visiting Cooper Jaguars scored the final 17 points to make their first trip to the state finals.
“Harlan County is a great football team. I think they were underrated all year. We knew coming down here that this wasn’t going to be a good matchup for us,” said Cooper coach Randy Borchers. “By no means did we beat these guys — we survived. When you get this deep in the playoffs that is all you have to do. You want to survive for another week and we did that.”
The opening drive turned out to be the best of the contest for the Black Bears. Harlan County marched 75 yards on 12 straight runs to take an early lead. Fullbacks Tucker Lewis and Carson Whitehead combined for six carries and 41 yards on the drive. Junior Treyvon Long capped the possession with a 7-yard touchdown run with 6:11 left in the first quarter. Cole Wilson’s extra point made it 7-0.
After allowing 63 yards rushing on the first drive, the Cooper defense stiffened up. The Jaguars surrendered just 139 yards on the ground the rest of the night.
“We tried to get a little beef up front. We moved a couple of guys from up front back to the linebacker spot to get a little bigger, because they were just blowing us off the ball,” Borchers said. “We were afraid of that going into this game and knew it was going to be our biggest problem. We kind of thought ahead a little bit that there were a couple of things we could do if we got into this situation.”
Both defenses turned in a pair of stops on the following possessions, and Harlan County punter Justin Napier pinned the Jaguars back to their own 11 with a 37-yard punt.
After stuffing the run on first and second down, Cooper quarterback Tyler Morris found Tanner Kissel for a 15-yard completion on third down. One play later, Morris hit Aaron Morgan down the right sideline for a 75-yard touchdown. Morgan was the focal point of the passing game throughout the night and hauled in eight passes for 125 yards.
“He has been that way all year. He is just a phenomenal football player. Every time we have needed a big play he has stepped up for us, and he did it time and time again tonight,” Borchers said.
Harlan County threatened to regain the lead just before halftime. The Bears put together a 12-play drive that covered 57 yards, but ended without points. Sophomore Fred Massey scored on a 9-yard run, but the touchdown was called back to an illegal procedure penalty.
“It was a pretty big emotional swing. That would have put us up 14-7,” Larkey said.
Two plays later, Scotty Bailey’s pass was intercepted by Morgan at the Bears’ 9, and returned across midfield. A horse-collar penalty set the Cougars up at Harlan County’s 32 with 2 seconds left in the half. A pass interference penalty on the next play gave Cooper one final shot at the endzone from the 22, but Aaron Caldwell sacked Morris on the next snap to end the half.
After kicking off, Harlan County forced a third-and-five to open the second half. However, Morris found Morgan once again on the next play — this time for a 26-yard gain and the first down.
“We couldn’t stop them — that was the problem. We had them backed up a couple of times and thought we had them in the hole, but they would come up with a big play,” Larkey said.
Cooper capitalized on the play, and Morris scored on a 21-yard scramble just two plays later. The extra point put the Jags up 14-7.
After forcing the Bears to punt, Cooper went up by a pair of scores thanks to a 29-yard field goal from Logan Turner with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter. Morris was involved in an all 46 yards in the drive, rushing for 25 and adding another 21 through the air.
“We told them all week that we had to set the tone early. One of our biggest fears was if they pounded us early and got up that we may put our heads down. But, our kids didn’t. They continued to fight all year,” Borchers said. “You can’t say enough about this group.”
Harlan County had several opportunities reduce the deficit from that point, but couldn’t close the gap. The Black Bears moved the ball across the 50-yard-line on four possessions, but were unable to finish the drives with points.
Cooper (13-1) will face Bowling Green in the 5A championship next Saturday. The Purples edged John Hardin 14-13 in the western semifinal contest. Harlan County closes the season at 11-3. Friday’s contest marked the final high school game for a senior group of Bears that have won two regional championships and three straight district titles.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these 11 seniors on the football team. They have really put in a lot of hard work and hard play,” Larkey said. “All 11 seniors are great kids. They put in four years of hard work, and I hate to see them graduate.”