Not many middle school football teams have entered a season with higher expectations and more hype than this year’s New Harlan Patriots.
Most of the key players are back from a 10-2 squad that lost 16-14 to Pikeville in the regional finals of the state playoffs. The Patriots opened last season with a loss at Whitley County, then reeled off 10 straight double-digit wins, topping the 30-point mark in nine of the 10 games.
New Harlan’s domination last season had one drawback for this year’s squad — finding a schedule was quite difficult. New coach Jon Reynolds, a former high school coach at Knox Central and Cumberland, knows his Patriots must become mentally tougher to succeed against a schedule that includes Whitley County, North Pulaski, Johnson Central, Wayne County, Bell County, Corbin, Evarts and Middlesboro.
“We’re a pretty good bunch physically. What we have to work on is our mentality,” Reynolds said. “Our mental state has to improve for us to succeed. I think the kids want to improve.”
The Patriots’ lineup features several players who had breakout seasons last year, including guard/nose guard Jordan Steele, who has been ranked among the top eighth graders in the state and nation after attending several summer camps.
Steele will lead a New Harlan defense that also features linebackers Josh Turner, Kobe Burkhart, Gavin Ewald and Hunter Blevins and end Hunter Helton.
The Patriots’ offense features a trio of standout backs with Matt Brown giving New Harlan big-play speed and Turner and Blevins providing power.
Burkhart and Steele anchor the New Harlan offensive front as a dominating pair of guards. Brett Roark is back at center. Tony Reynolds will play left tackle, while Troy Bennett and James Gray will share time at right tackle. Helton plays tight end.
Gavin Ewald, Cody Clayborn and Tyler Cole are among the candidates at quarterback.
Evarts is also coming off a strong season as the Wildcats opened with six straight wins before finishing 7-3. Most of the skilled players moved up to Harlan County High School, which means first-year coach Ryan Sawyers will need strong performances from his linemen.
The Evarts offensive line will feature Gavin McLain at center, Jacob Blas at guard and Lake Caudill and Jacob Fox at the tackles.
“The key to our success will lie heavily on our line. That is where most of our experience returns,” said Sawyers, who coached the Evarts fifth- and sixth-grade team previously.
Demarco Hopkins is being counted on to be a playmaker as he takes over at quarterback. The Evarts backfield will feature seventh-graders Jayden Ward, Zack Potter and Triston Cochran.
Ward and Luke Carr will be counted on to lead the Evarts defense at linebacker. Potter is the Wildcats’ most athletic player, according to Sawyers, and is a key player in the secondary.
“I think we have a shot at being successful this year,” Sawyers said. “We have a lot of great kids and great coaches. I couldn’t ask for a better team in my first year as a head coach for junior high.”
Cumberland brings back several key players last year’s 4-4 squad and veteran coach Wes Bailey likes the Redskins’ potential.
“I think we have pretty good leadership. We have some kids who have stepped up and stepped into the leadership role from last year,” Bailey said. “We just haven’t had a chance to scrimmage yet due to our numbers, so we’ll find out more when we get a chance to play Saturday (in the league gridorama at Harlan).”
Bailey likes the Redskins’ weapons on offense, led by Zac Collett at quarterback, Josh Swanner at tailback, Josh Whitehead at fullback and Tyler Flanary at halfback.
“We have speed and power in the backfield,” Bailey said.
The Cumberland line will feature seventh-grader Cullen Whitaker at center, Chase Gladson and Trey Brock at the tackles and Justin Adams, Nathan Shepherd and Jacob Holland sharing time at the guard spots.
Defensive leaders include Swanner and Whitehead at linebacker, along with Flanary. Donovan Simmons and Jaedyn Gist are the cornerbacks.
Gladson and Brock will serve as the defensive tackles, with Ethan Collins and Adams at the guards. Whitaker and Nathan Halcomb are the ends. Ethan Collins, Jacob Potter and Amy Fields will provide depth up front.
With a big eighth-grade class coming back from a 3-4 team, the Harlan Green Dragons and coach Chris Thompson are optimistic about their chances of having a big season this fall.
“We’ll have more experience this year than usual because we have so many eighth graders who have been playing since the fifth grade,” Thompson said. “I’m excited about our team this year. We have quite a few good eighth graders and some good younger ones.”
Conner Scearse will take for Jacob Wilson at quarterback. Ethan Clem will play one running back spot is expected to be a workhorse in the backfield. Juan Bynum and Britt Lawson will share time at the other halfback spot, with Cade Middleton and Grant Miller also seeing action in the backfield.
Jeremiah Mills is a returning starter at receiver. Jesse Cornett will play one tight end with Austin Sergent or Chris Billings at the other.
Returning on the offensive line are center Kenny Bowling and guards Isaiah Hall and Jordan Helton. Ethan Shepherd, a seventh-grader, will take over at one tackle, with Braydon Shanks, an eighth-grader, moving in at the other.
Returning starters on defense include cornerback Trey Barnes, along with Sergent at safety and Hall at tackle. Shanks will see action at linebacker and handle the punting duties. Robbie Neal, Kaleb McLendon and Bynum will round out the secondary.
“We just have to be aggressive,” Thompson said. “Fundamentally, we know what to do. We’re just a little too nice. We’re just as big as other teams, so we have to be aggressive.”
Harlan Team members include, from left, front row: John Mark Bryson, Trey Barnes, Timmy Goins, Josh Collet, David Vanwinkle, Cade Middleton, Jakob Vaughn and Britt Lawson; second row: Jacob Madden, Chris Billings, Gunner Thompson, Ethan Clem, Shane Lindsey, Kaleb McLendon, Grant Miller, Juan Bynum, Robbie Neal and Jeremiah Mills; third row: Braydon Shanks, Jordan Helton, Isaiah Hall, Kenny Bowling, Jesse Cornett, Alex Bynum, Tyler Cozart, Connor Scearse, Austin Sergent, Montana Harris and Ethan Shepherd; back row: manager Jeff “Speedy” Bittner, coaches Chris “Shake” Thompson, James Billings, Chris Thompson, Reed Scearse and Matt Lane.
Evarts Team members include, from left, front row: Jacob Cooper, Taylor Sizemore, Dylan Middleton, Zack Potter and Sam Carr; middle row: Jeffrey Stewart, Jacob Blas, Gage Caudill, Nick Hunting, Lake Caudill, Jared Eldridge, Bruce Burgan, Caleb Brock, Luke Carr and Alan Tolliver; third row: Triston Cochran, Alex Greenlee, Jacob Fox, Jaylin Cottrell, Jayden Ward, Demarco Hopkins, Gavin McClain., Justin Caudill, Isaac Taulbee and Damichael Brown; back row: coaches Ryan Sawyers, Kyle Wynn, Bryan Napier, Adam Carr and Josh Snelling.
Team members include, from left, front row: Jacob Potter, Dylan Holland, Cayden Childers, Kevin Simpkins, Jaedyn Gist, Donovan Simmons, Kaleb Adams, Zac Collett, Tyler Flanary and Nathan Shepherd; middle row: Amy Fields, Josh Swanner, Anthony Flores, Justin Adams, Josh Whitehead, Chase Gladson, Ethan Collins, Cullen Whitaker, Jacob Holland and Trey Brock; back row: coaches Wes Bailey, Caleb Bailey, Shane Watts, Anthony Carruba and Derek Akal
New Harlan Team members include, from left, front row: Gabe Fultz, Andrew Johnson, Matt Brown and Caleb Reynolds; second row: Johnny Brock, Josh Caudill, Ethan Caldwell, Alexander Sanders, Troy Bennett, Timothy Bailey, Danny Blanton and Johnathan Langford; third row: James Gray, Brandon Perez, Ethan Dillman, Bobby Owens, Gary Jones, Cody Clayborn, Hunter Blevins and Justin Maiden; fourth row: Tyler Cole, Tony Reynolds, Kobe Burkhart, Brett Roark, Hunter Helton, Jordan Steele, Gavin Ewald and Josh Turner; back row: coaches B.J. Burkhart, Jason Sanders, John Reynolds, Greg Bailey and Pete Stewart; not pictured: Dillion Cornett and Houston Williams.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134