If someone ever writes a history of the Harlan County High School football program, the author will likely note that several of the team’s greatest moments in its first decade came against the Pulaski County Maroons, the opponent for Harlan County on Friday in the second game of the Don Marshall Bowl at Pulaski County.
Harlan County capped a surprisingly fast run to its first regional title in only the third year of the program with a 35-21 win over Pulaski County in the Region 4 finals at the old Cawood field in 2010.
The Bears blanked the Maroons 20-0 the next year in the first round of the playoffs, then rolled past Pulaski 46-12 in the 2012 regional finals.
History will also show that a couple of the Bears’ worst moments occurred against Pulaski County, beginning in the 2010 season when the Bears were routed 40-7 in Somerset before bouncing back later in the year to avenge the loss in especially sweet fashion. Harlan County was no match for the Maroons in a 42-20 loss in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
After losing to Harlan County in the 2012 playoffs, Pulaski County went on the most impressive run in school history. The Maroons have won three straight regional titles, finishing second in the state in 2013 and 2015 while winning a 5A state title in 2014.
“I guess if you want to be the best you have to play the best,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “Hopefully, we can eventually start beating the best.”
Pulaski lost several good players from last year’s 13-2 team. Standout quarterback Riley Hall was one of 13 seniors to graduate, but the Maroons return more than enough talent to still be ranked among the state’s top 5A squads with six starters back on offense and eight on defense.
“We lost some good players, but we have some good leaders and the potential to be pretty good. We’re a work in progress,” said Pulaski County coach John Hines.
Senior receiver Jake Johnson was a first-team all-state selection last year and is one of the top candidates for Mr. Football. He comes into this season needing only six receptions to become Kentucky’s all-time leader in receptions — a mark currently held by former Trinity star James Quick. Johnson comes into his senior year with 275 receptions for his career, for 3,913 yards and 46 touchdowns.
Jaylon Conwell, a senior, is the top running back returning as he gained 777 yards on 103 carries last season.
Senior leaders on the Pulaski defends include nose guard Daniel Mink, linebackers Jackson Mobley (an all-state selection from a year ago) and Ricky Maxey, as well as all-state safety Jake New.
“Those four guys are tremendous football players,” said Hines. “Daniel Mink is not very impressive at all if you see him out of uniform. He’s not very big, but he just makes play, after play, after play. Go look at our films. He drives offensive coordinators crazy, because he’s a high motor guy and never quits. In Jackson Mobley and Ricky Maxey, we feel we have two of the best linebackers of any team in the state.”
“Any time you have a guy who eventually could be the all-time leader in receptions on your team you obviously are very explosive on offense,” Creech said. “Pulaski, for the past five or six years, has been very solid defensively. We cannot turn the ball over. We have to execute on offense and sustain drives. We also have to try to hold (Johnson) in check the best we can.”
Harlan County is coming off back-to-back losing seasons after winning four district and two regional titles in the first six years of the program. The Bears fell to 2-9 in 2014 before improving to 4-7 a year ago and finishing second in District 8. Nineteen of 22 starters are back, and HCHS enters the season as the second-ranked team in District 8 behind defending champ North Laurel.
“They have a lot of experience,” Hines said. “They are also really big and have some athletes who can hit the home run.”
It will be the fourth season-opener that the Bears have played in Somerset in the nine-year history of HCHS. Harlan County has lost the previous three by big margins, falling by 27 to Southwestern in 2009 and by 33 to Pulaski County in 2010 in the Ray Correll Bowl. The Bears lost 57-0 last year in the Don Marshall Bowl.
“We are 0-3 down there, but we’re looking at this as being a new season,” Creech said. “We hope we can get over the hump.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134