The 5A District 8 championship and four home playoff games will likely be up for grabs Friday as Whitley County travels to Harlan County. The Bears and Colonels entered the season as district favorites, and both have done little to dispel that thought.
“It is a big game for us. The district title could be on the line. There is a lot at state, because there is the possibility of four straight home playoff games if you keep on winning,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “That is what we are after.”
“All of your district games are important, so it is probably the biggest game of the year,” added Whitley County coach Jim Black.
Both teams enter Friday’s contest fresh off of impressive district openers. Harlan County turned in arguably its best performance of the season in a 49-0 thrashing of Letcher Central last week. The Bears’ defense dominated the Cougars, with 12 sacks in the contest. However, Whitley County will pose a more difficult challenge. The Colonels rely on a ground-oriented option attack.
Bruising fullback Boston Bryant leads the Colonel offense. Bryant has rushed for 413 yards on 81 carries. Joining Bryant in the backfield is standout freshman Zack Mills, who has rushed for 548 yards on 59 carries. Sophomore Austin Ysidro is also a threat at quarterback.
“Bryant is a powerful runner. It will take some gang tackling on him. The quarterback is a good player. Then they have Mills. He is probably the best freshmen player in this part of the state. He has a lot of speed and runs real strong. He is the go-to man outside. They run a lot of sweeps to him,” Larkey said. “We have to close up the middle and stop him on the outside at the same time. You have to keep your eye on the quarterback too. Our defense is in training this week to stop all that.”
Black said the Colonels’ offense must stay patient against Harlan County’s defense.
“We have to execute and take what they are giving us. It won’t be much, but we have to take advantage of what they are giving us in certain situations,” he said.
The Bears have been hampered by penalties in recent weeks. Harlan County has been flagged 35 times for 307 yards in the last two outings. Correcting those mistakes will likely be a major factor on Friday.
“Our defense is playing good right now. They are doing what they are told to do and learning from their mistakes. We just have to try to cut back on some of our penalties,” Larkey said. “That is hard to do sometimes when you are out there playing aggressive football. Penalties and turnovers have shot us in the leg a few times this year, and we can’t afford to do that against Whitley County this year.”
Taking away Harlan County’s physical rushing attack, will be the top priority for the Colonels’ defense.
“I haven’t seen anybody slow them down. It will be a tough task for us to try to go up there and stand in there with them. They are huge on the front line and are very aggressive. They put those two big backs in there and they murder people,” Black said. “It will be a tall order for us to slow them down, but like everybody else, I will try to put more in there than they can block.”
To keep Whitley County from focusing solely on the run, Larkey said the Bears will need to mix some passes into the offense.
“Whitley County is a much stronger and more physical team than Letcher County right now. Everybody tries to stop us up front and put a lot of people in the box. We have to try to keep them honest with some play action passes and that type of thing,” he said. “I feel like it will be a war in the trenches. We just have to keep the chains moving down the field and not make any mistakes.”
Junior receiver Scotty Bailey will replace Austin Maggard under center. Maggard is likely done for the season after tearing cartilage in his shoulder during last week’s win over Letcher Central.
“We are working with Scotty there under center and will have a lot of shotgun plays. He does a good job and throws pretty accurate passes. He will be fine.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and Larkey said he expects a large turnout.
“It is full every home game. It will be a great atmosphere for football in the mountains,” he said. “I think our kids will be fired up and ready to play.”