For the first 15 years of this century, the Harlan Green Dragons chased a district championship, the same goal year after year, one that continually eluded them, often by the slimmest of margins.
Harlan broke through in 2015, rolling to a 9-3 mark that included a win over two-time defending Class A state runner-up Williamsburg. The Dragons advanced to the second round of the Class A playoffs before falling to Hazard, ending one of the best seasons in school history.
With a senior-dominated squad returning this fall, the Dragons have found a new goal, similar to their old one but with a new twist.
“I think this bunch has taken on a challenge that they would like to be the first team at Harlan to repeat as district champs,” said Harlan coach J.B. Donahue. “This group of seniors would like to hang their hat on being the first group to repeat. I think these kids have some confidence about them, and I think it will show in the fall.”
Harlan won its first district title in 1979 when Donahue and current Harlan assistants John Luttrell and Petie Dean were players on Rick McCrary’s squad.
The Dragons won again in 1996 and 1999 during the heyday of Donahue’s 24-year run as coach, but had been up and down since, finishing second numerous times against powerhouse opponents like Somerset and Hazard.
“I think our district is back to being as good as it’s been in a long time,” Donahue said. “Lynn Camp is talented. Pineville is exceptionally talented. Williamsburg won’t stay down long because they’ve been to the top of the mountain. I think you could make an argument for any of the four teams. Pineville may be a notch ahead in skilled people, but it comes down to who plays the best this season. Anybody could win and anybody could finish fourth.”
Lack of depth is the biggest concern for Donahue heading into the season with the roster numbers down slightly from a year ago.
“The big key for us is staying healthy,” he said. “Lack of depth is our biggest weakness. I think our offensive line and ability to run the football would be our strengths.”
While they lost three of their top four rushers and their top receiver, the Dragons expect to have another big year on offense, thanks in large part to a big and experienced front line.
“We’ve got five pretty good starters there, and they cleared the path for close to 4,000 yards rushing last year, I’d say, so we expect bigger and better things this year. It would be good to top that number,” Donahue said. “I compare this group to 2009 with (James) Hill, (Evan) Dugger and Tanner Smith and that crew. They were able to clear a lot of room for Andrew Link, and that team beat Pikeville. We’ll see if this bunch can do as much.”
The strength of the offensive front will be on the right side where seniors Thomas Morgan (6-4, 280) and Bryce Browning (6-2, 225) give Harlan the best tandem of linemen in the district.
“Thomas is a four-year starter who is the best college prospect we’ve had in several years. He has great strength and is improving his feet. He will be our leader on both sides of the line,” Donahue said. “Bryce is a terrific young man and a leader of our team. He and Tanner took a leadership role in the offseason.”
Brandon Day, a junior, moves from guard to center, while senior Matthew Short (5-10, 280) shifts from center to left tackle. Franklin Davis, a sophomore, takes over at left guard.
“Brandon plays with a high motor and has good feet,” Donahue said. “Franklin has good size and may be the strongest kid on the team. Matt has a lot of experience and is a head player who knows the game well.”
Others who could see action on the offensive line are sophomore Garrett Begley and juniors Derick Smith and Drew Burnette.
The biggest change on offense is at quarterback, where sophomore Kilian Ledford is moving from receiver, switching places, in effect, with senior Tanner Parks. Ledford played sparingly behind center last year, completing one of three passes, but may be the best athlete on the roster, something Donahue hopes can translate into big plays, both on the ground and through the air.
“I think it’s a team move. I wouldn’t hesitate a minute to put Tanner at quarterback, and I think we could still be effective, but I don’t think we’d be as effective at wingback, where he has moved to,” Donahue said. “Kilian has some play-making abilities. He throws the ball well and is an elusive runner.”
Parks, who competed 35 of 76 passes for 725 yards last season, will take over at wingback.
“He’s the leader of the football team. He’s the pulse,” Donahue said. “He will make plays for us and will block well on the edge and will run it on occasion. He’s done it all without one complaint. That’s just who he is. I think I could ask him to play guard, and he’d say OK.”
Losing Nick Jarvis and his team leading 1,095 yards rushing will be the biggest blow to the Harlan offense, which means junior Kendal Brock will take on an even bigger workload in his third year as a starter. Brock ran for over 1,000 yards last year with 18 touchdowns.
“Kendal is a talented runner who worked hard on increasing his speed,” Donahue said. “He has good strength and vision as a runner. He brings a very physical runner to our team. He can carry the ball a lot on a Friday night.”
Joey Swanner, a senior who transferred from Harlan County, will take over for Jarvis at fullback.
“He had a great offseason in the weightroom for us,” Donahue said. “Joey is a talented athlete. There are a lot of unknowns for us with Joey, but I expect a lot out of him. I think he can, hopefully, fill some of the void with the loss of Nick Jarvis.”
Donahue says the Dragons will move the ball primarily on the ground, as has been his style for most of the 24 seasons he’s been the head coach.
“We’ll still be a run-oriented team, whether we’re under center or in the shotgun,” he said. “We’ll take what’s there. We’ll throw it some and do some run-pass option stuff with Kilian. Coach (John) Luttrell has a good plan.”
Andrew Saylor, a senior, will take over for Drew Parks at tight end, with sophomore Tate Bryson also seeing action there.
“He has great hands. Andrew is a big guy, but he can catch it,” Donahue said. “He should be able to help on the edge as a blocker with his size. We think Andrew and Tanner will give us solid blocking on the edges.”
Losing senior receiver Noah Busroe, who decided not to play football this year, is the second big blow to the Harlan offense. With 21 catches last year, Busroe had more receptions than the rest of the team combined. Caleb Adkins and Jarrett McKenzie, both sophomores, will share time at receiver, and both could be on the field at the same time in certain formations.
“I think Caleb can give us some big plays and help us not miss Noah as much. He can fill that void. Caleb made a lot of big plays for us last year. He has a lot of speed. He has turned himself into a really good player when the lights come on,” Donahue said. “Jarrett played quite a bit for us on defense last year. He has some good speed and has really developed as a receiver working with coach (Petie) Dean.”
Best known for most of his career as an offensive coach, Donahue will take over the defense this season with Eric Perry no longer on the Harlan staff. The Dragons will move to a “44” alignment this season.
“We’re trying to be simple, so we can play fast,” Donahue said. “I think we’re getting better. My main concern defensively is physicality and tackling. We’re working on that religiously every day. We’ll continue to work on it every day.”
Browning, a senior, and Begley, a sophomore, will open as the starting tackles, with Short and Davis also vying for playing time.
“I can’t say enough about Bryce’s leadership. He’s a good, positive influence for the team. I think he’s ready to make plays for us both ways,” Donahue said. “Begley has a high motor and learns everything. He’s working hard every day to get better. He has some intensity and fight to him. I think he will make some plays.”
Morgan, the Dragons’ top defender, shifts from tackle to end, where he will be joined by Saylor, also a returning starter on defense.
“Thomas is one of the rare defensive linemen that will require a lot of double teams,” Donahue said. “Andrew made his share of plays last year also. We expect the two of them to keep people from running the edges on us.”
Day and Smith will also see action at the ends.
Ledford moves from safety, where he led the team in tackles last year as a freshman, to play outside linebacker. Ledford could also spend time in pass coverage, depending on the opponent.
“Kilian gives us a lot of playmaking abilities in the middle of our defense,” Donahue said. “He is also a very aggressive kid, and we expect him to make a lot of tackles for us again.”
Bryson and Michael Robinson will share time at the other outside linebacker spot.
“Tate is a very intelligent. He is playing several spots for us, and I think he can make some plays for us,” Donahue said. “I’ve been impressed with Michael in summer practice. He is very observant and goes hard.”
Parks and Swanner are the starters at inside linebacker, with Brock and Burnette also expected to see action.
“They are our leaders of our defense. Tanner will be making the calls defensively and making the adjustments. We’re putting a lot in his hands. He and Joey have to make a lot of plays,” Donahue said. “Right now, we’re just worried about the physicality of our linebackers. Both of them are very athletic and run pretty well. We’re just worried about how physical they will be.”
Adkins is back at cornerback, where he will be joined by sophomore John Brady Brock.
“Both of those guys are very fast. We have good speed in the secondary,” Donahue said. “Both were on the relay team that qualified for the state track meet last year. They are both getting better making plays on the ball. They are playing a little different style this year with zone coverage. I think the guys have made the adjustment and are doing a good job with it.”
McKenzie is the starter at safety where his playmaking abilities could be crucial to the Dragons’ success on defense.
“Jarrett has come a long way. He has to make some calls and adjustments for us,” Donahue said. “Jarrett is very athletic, and we expect a lot of plays out of him.”
Ledford will handle extra points, with Robinson kicking off and Swanner punting.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134