Seemingly headed toward disaster after losing five of their first six games last fall, the Harlan County Black Bears turned around their season at the most opportune time with three straight district victories. The win streak helped the Bears take second in District 8 of 5A and earn a home playoff game.
HCHS finished 4-7 after losing in the first round of the playoffs to Lincoln County, but the late surge that included wins over Letcher Central, Whitley County and Perry Central helped boost enthusiasm heading into the long offseason and expectations going into the new season with 19 of 22 starters coming back on a junior-dominated squad.
“I really look for our guys to up their level of play this year,” said second-year coach Eddie Creech. “They are juniors and seniors now, so the excuse of being young is out the window now. They have a year of experience in our system now, and I think winning those three straight gave us some momentum to end the year, even though the playoff game didn’t go the way we wanted.
“The big thing is we overcame a lot of adversity last year. They were outscored something like 150-0 in three games. To bounce back and go on that that run was a testament to the kids’ mental toughness.”
Harlan County will play nine of the same 10 opponents as last year with defending state runner-up Pulaski County replacing Southwestern in the opener. The Bears will also still have eastern Kentucky powers Belfry, Johnson Central, Knox Central and Bell County on the schedule.
“The non-district portion of the schedule is so important for us to find out who can play and where,” Creech said. “All the games matter, and the next game is always the biggest game of the year, but the bottom line is we have to be ready when North Laurel rolls across the bridge for the first district game.”
North Laurel remains the favorite in District 8 of 5A after sweeping district competition last year, but the Bears like their chances of regaining the top spot they held from 2010 to 2013.
“Every year you want to go a little farther than the year before, and finishing second last year made us hungry to win the district this year. We’re also hungry to win a playoff game. Those are two things we didn’t do last year and two of our top goals this year,” Creech said.
Depth has become a potential strength for the Bears with Creech noting that only two or three players will likely start both ways, including no linemen.
“Every day those guys are competing in practice. You have your starting offensive line going against your starting defensive line every day,” Creech said.
Much of Harlan County’s offensive success will depend on the continued maturation of junior quarterterback Jacob Branson, who took over at midseason last year and finished with 662 yards on 47-of-80 passing. He threw for nine touchdown and three interceptions.
“I guess I’m a little rougher on my quarterbacks than anybody,” Creech said. “I expect a lot more from him. Jacob has a lot left in the tank. I don’t think he’s anywhere near his potential. I think as the days go on he will have to up his leadership, both vocally and physically, in practice.”
Branson, much like Scotty Bailey and Jordy Brewer before him, also provides a running threat.
“I’ve gained a lot of trust in what Jacob sees on the field. I’ve learned to trust him in some of the zone reads we run,” Creech said. “He reminds me of Jordy because he’s a dual-threat quarterback, and that poses a threat to defenses.
Colby Cochran, a sophomore, and Josh Downey, a junior transfer from Florida, will also see action at quarterback.
There is no shortage of playmakers on offense, led by junior Tyrese Simmons, who is a threat as a receiver and runner, as well as on special teams. Simmons led the Bears in every receiving category last year with 30 receptions for 447 yards and five touchdowns, averaging over 40 yards per catch.
“Tyrese is one of the guys that football people would call an ‘X factor’ in a game,” Creech said. “He can take a simple little bubble pass in the flats and take it to the house. He’s a good kick returner and punt returner and is an excellent defensive back. He’s an overall outstanding athlete.
“As an offensive game planner you have to break down your strengths, and Tyrese is a guy we want to have the ball. We also know he won’t slip up on anybody. He will draw some double coverages and things like that,” Creech said. “You take a kid who can dunk a basketball any way he wants to. He does the same things on football field. He’s gifted.”
Two other juniors, Colby King and Devon Rodrigues, are also returning starters in the receiving corps. King had 19 catches for 208 yards and Rodrigues added 14 for 190 yards, to rank second and third, respectively, in both categories.
“Colby brings something you can’t really teach and that’s field speed. He can cover a lot of ground, and he has good hands. He also plays real physical, even though he’s not real big. We think he can make some big plays for us this year,” Creech said. “D-Rod, from his freshman year to now, has probably made the biggest jump from all the receivers. He had a good year last year, but we’re looking for improvement.”
The other receiver spot is up for grabs with the candidates including Hunter Owens, A.J. Simmons, Downey and Sean Johnson. When the Bears go to a two tight end set, Creech has several options, led by juniors Lamar Burkhart, Ethan Baird, Kyton Joseph and Cameron Nease.
“Lamar and Ethan bring a physical presence at tight end like some of the guys we’ve had there in the past,” Creech said. “Kyton and Cameron give you the ability to both block and pass catch.”
The only loss on offense is a big one with running back Dylan Cornett, who ran 1,214 yards and 17 touchdowns, graduating. No one else on the team had over 200 yards rushing last year, but there is no shortage of candidates to fill the spot.
Rhett Alred and Kennon Napier, both seniors who started on defense last year, are two of the power options. Alred is the leading returning rusher with 149 yards and three touchdowns last year. Caleb Carmical, a junior who stars on defense at linebacker, could also provide power.
If Creech is looking for a big-play threat, he can turn to juniors Chase Coker and Quintin Mickins. Coker was a star running back at Cumberland before sitting out the last two years. Mickins is also best known for his defensive play but, like Coker, looked like a potential playmaker in the Bears’ spring game.
“We’re glad to see Chase back on the football field, both offensively and defensively. One thing people don’t realize about Chase is his general football knowledge. He’s a very heady kid,” Creech said.
Paul Stapleton, a junior currently sidelined by a knee injury, will also figure into the equation when he returns.
“I really like the depth overall, but the two positions we’re deepest at are running back and linebacker, and a lot of those are the same kids,” Creech said. “This gives us a competition, and the kids have to win their position. I like the competition we’re getting day to day. We’re versatile in what we can do at running back.”
One area that Creech expected to be improved is an offensive front that features five returning starters, led by tackles Braydan Roark (6-1, 255) and Andrew Baker (6-2, 300).
“Braydan is a great example of physical and mental strength. He knows everything going on and is a leader on the offensive line,” Creech said. “Andrew has probably made the most gains on the team in the weightroom and has some high goals for this year. He wants to make a big impact on the offensive line.”
Jacob Cornett (5-8, 280) and Jake Casolari (6-0, 320), both seniors, are the returning starters at the guards. Braden Shelton (5-11, 235), also a senior, will share time with Casolari on the right side.
“Jacob is a physical force up front, and he’s a three-year starter who should provide some leadership,” Creech said. “Jake is a big specimen with a lot of brute strength. Braden can play a lot of positions and has improved a lot.”
Noah Wood (5-9, 225), a junior, is back for his second season at center.
“He’s probably one of the hardest workers on the team. He has picked up a lot of strength where he can compete at the 5A level,” Creech said.
Chandler Funk (6-2, 270), a senior, will see action at center, and junior Ethan Baird (6-1, 240) can play guard or tackle.
Creech expects the offensive front to be better this year with a year of experience.
“We implemented some zone schemes into our offense last year that took some adjustment time,” he said. “We’ve widened our splits this year and they have their hands in the dirt, trying to get back to some more downhill running. I feel we should be experienced up front.”
The strength of the Harlan County defense could be at linebacker where Carmical, Garry Henson, Napier and Alred are returning starters. Creech hopes to capitalize on an area of strength by moving to a “34” this year that will allow four members of the group to start, but even with that the competition will be fierce.
“I think the ‘34” scheme will take some time, but it allows us to put more athletic tacklers on the field,” Creech said. “Sometimes we will be able to put five linebackers out there as opposed to the past when were limited to two.”
Creech expects Henson and Joseph to start on the inside. Henson was second on the team in tackles last year with 77 after earning a starting job as a freshman. Joseph has been one of the Bears’ most pleasant surprises of this offseason.
“Garry has added some weight and now has a year under his belt. Garry is an All-American kid. He is a competitor and never backs down from a challenge.” Creech said. “Kyton has been a bright spot. Running track last year with the high jump has really helped him in football. He was really physical in the spring game.”
Carmical, a three-year starter, was third on the team in tackles last year with 68. Napier and Alred, both seniors, added 45 and 36 tackles, respectively. Coker, who hasn’t played since middle school, is being counted on to provide a pass rush off the outside with his exceptional speed, or he could shift to safety.
“Caleb is one of the top hardest working players I’ve ever been around in practice, and Rhett plays real physical and down hill,” Creech said. “Kennon will be shifting from defensive end in our old ‘50’ and is also a very physical player who had a good year last season. Chase has a lot of tools you can’t coach. He’s very quick and aggressive, and his lateral movement is off the charts.”
The HCHS secondary should also be strong with Mickins back at safety, where he led the team in tackles last year with 87, and Simmons returning at corner.
“Tyrese is an absolute athlete who can run and jump, cover and tackle. Not a lot of people tried to throw on his side last year. When his mind is into it, he can shut down a side of the field in the passing game,” Creech said. “Quintin is a hard-nosed kid who has a nose for the ball. We’re looking for him to continue to be a leader.”
Branson, who had 45 tackles midway through the season, is back at cornerback after being taked off defense when he took over as the starting quarterback.
“Jacob is a great two-way player. As much as I’d like to sit my quarterback on defense, you’re looking at one of the best cornerbacks in the district, in my opinion,” Creech said. “He can cover, he can tackle, has good range and is smart.”
King is back at the other safety where Creech hopes his speed will help the Bears force turnovers.
“Colby, even when he messes up, has enough speed to make up for his mistakes,” Creech said. “If he stays in position, people will have a hard time throwing toward him.”
Stapleton, a starter at cornerback two years ago as a freshman, is back after a year at Harlan, but he may not be ready during the season’s opening month as he recovers from knee surgery.
“Paul was one of the tougher kids we had as a freshman. We’re excited to have him back,” Creech said. “When he gets back from the injury, we expect good things out of him.”
Rodrigues could also see action at cornerback.
“He had some nice games last year and provides depth in the secondary,” Creech said.
Unlike the linebacking corps and secondary, the defensive line could feature an entirely new group with Cole Kidwell and Dillon Day as the only graduating starters on defense.
Lamar Burkhart (6-1, 250) , a junior who was slowed by injuries last season, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer camp and could start at tackles or nose guard.
“He has a football body and is very strong in his legs. He’s pretty agile for his size,” Creech said. “He really stood out to us in the spring. We had a hard time, even with double teams, of keeping him out of our backfield.”
Baird and Robert Burgan (5-11, 235), both juniors, are among the early favorites to take over as the starting tackles.
“Ethan is one of the most physical players we have. He’s a very smart player who will give you everything he’s got,” Creech said. “Robert really increased his size and strength. We just need him to be aggressive every play.”
Casolari could also see action on the defensive front, along with Shelton.
“Casolari can eat up two gaps at nose guard with his size and strength,” Creech said. “He can help us there.”
With Jordan Kelly graduating after a strong season as the HCHS kicker, Creech will turn to Kelly’s younger brother, Marcus, a junior who was impressive in the spring game.
“The potential for Jordan to be better than Jordan is there, but he has to improve his accuracy and his stamina,” Creech said.
Burkhart and Mickins are among the candidates to take over the punting duties.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134