Now a tradition that stretches back over 30 years, my football prognostication column doesn’t seem to carry quite as much pressure as the old days.
Two days after writing my first one in the summer of 1986, Cawood coach Jim Cullivan had a few comments of his own when he met me on the 50-yard-line after the Trojans opened the season with a win at Bell County.
“You’re the kind of guy who gets coaches fired,” is the greeting I remember from the legendary leader of the 1980s Trojans.
Cullivan wasn’t mad because I picked the Trojans to lose too many games. He didn’t like that I picked them to go 9-1. They ended the regular season 8-2.
A coach from another school in the county wasn’t happy that I picked his team to win only twice, coming off a string of bad seasons. When they won their second game fairly early that year it started in the postgame comments.
“We’ve already won as many games as some experts picked for the whole year.”
Then the next week it was: “We’ve already won one more game than some experts that we would.”
By the following week, the comment was: “We’ve already won twice as many games as some experts thought we would.”
Most coaches would rather be ranked too low than too high, but if the prediction was for a bad season it could give them some bulletin board material for several weeks.
Some coaches began their sales pitch for a low win count during the preseason picture day. Former Cumberland coach Jon Reynolds would often ask on that day what I was thinking, then try to talk me down a game or two. Reynolds played at Cawood under Cullivan, so he learned from one of the best.
Reynolds called his new assistant and former Cumberland star quarterback over once to get him to tell me what he thought, but apparently he forget to tell Eddie Creech that he was supposed to say “6-4.”
“I think we’ll win them all,” said Creech, now the head coach at Harlan County High School.
“Never mind,” said Reynolds.
“You know how quarterbacks are,” he said to me. “You can’t pay any attention to that.”
In the age of the Internet, everyone can publish predictions, so mine don’t carry as much significance as they might have at one point, but still we’ll carry on with the 2016 quest for prognostication perfection.
On the way to eight wins in last year’s regular season, Harlan took a few hits about the strength of its schedule, but the Dragons and coach J.B. Donahue had the last word by winning a three-team tiebreaker for the District 7 title, thanks in large part to their schedule.
Harlan brings back most of its line from last year and several top skilled players, which means the Dragons could make a run for back-to-back district titles for the first time in school history. The district race should go down to the wire again with Pineville also featuring a senior-dominated team. Williamsburg may be a year or two away from being a state contender again but has enough talent to contend. Lynn Camp is improving and could also be in the mix by October.
The Dragons shouldn’t have any trouble winning the opening two games against South Floyd and Thomas Walker, Va. The first test should come the next week on the road at Bracken County. The Polar Bears threw a scare into Harlan last year and could break through this season on their home field.
Harlan played its worst game in a loss at Middlesboro last year. The Dragons should gain revenge this year, beginning a four-game winning streak that also includes Rye Cove, Va., Williamburg and Lynn Camp, setting up a showdown against Pineville for the district title. The last two meetings against Pineville have gone down to the wire, and I expect another close one this year with Tucker Woolum and company following Harlan’s lead and ending a long drought between district titles.
I’ll take Harlan in a much closer game than last year against McCreary Central to close the regular season.
Harlan County (5-5)
Unlike a season earlier when Harlan County was unable to recover from the beatings suffered in a rough non-district schedule, the Bears bounced back last year to win three straight district games and take second in District 8 of 5A with a 4-6 regular-season record. WIth all but three starters returning, Harlan County should continue to improve, but nothing is a given with the competition the Bears will see.
Harlan County will face one of its toughest tests in the opener against defending state runner up Pulaski County. If the Bears are able to keep this one close, it would be a big step and boost the hopes for a breakout season.
The Bears should bounce back the next week at home against Clay County, and they better with games the next four weeks against Belfry, Knox Central, Johnson Central and North Laurel. HCHS has a shot in all the games except Belfry, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see another 1-5 start, even with a much improved team. Harlan County should have enough playmakers to put up some points, but I haven’t seen “The Filthy Animals” play in almost three years, and HCHS will have to get back to being physical on defense to beat really good teams like Knox Central or North Laurel.
Harlan County could repeat last year’s three-game district winning streak against Letcher Central, Whitley County and Perry Central, but there are no guarantees, especially if the Bears lose confidence in the non-district portion of the schedule. Letcher Central looked real good in beating Harlan County twice in a summer passing competition at South Laurel. Whitley has been up and down for years and could be a contender again this season if a replacement is found for quarterback Luke Woods. Perry Central should be better with Tom Larkey in his second year as coach.
The Bears could even their record by knocking off Bell County, and I expect that they will, even though the Bobcats are still dangerous despite some heavy graduation losses.