Harlan County had all summer to get ready for its first opponent, Pulaski County, and the Bears played like it Friday. Harlan County’s wishbone attack, a change from last year’s spread offense, may have caught the defending state runner-up Maroons by surprise as HCHS ran for over 200 yards and also played well on defense. If not for a couple of special teams breakdowns, the Bears may have been able to pull off the upset as Pulaski held on for a 26-14 victory.
The question for the Bears going into their home opener Friday is how will they be able to carry over what they did well in the opener, especially when they won’t be able to catch Clay County by surprise and won’t have several weeks to prepare.
“I think we have the personnel where we can spread it, then tighten it back down for our power running game,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “I think from game to game it will be a matchup thing as far as what would be our best bet going into that game. We just want to be more efficient offensively. We punted only one time last week but only had 14 points to show for it. We have to take care of the football. That’s been our number one goal this week. Turnovers hurt us in the scrimmages and last week.”
The Bears will be playing an opponent also feeling pretty good about itself. Clay County opened the season with a 14-0 win over visiting Rowan County, a team that drubbed the Tigers 55-26 in last year’s season opener.
“We made a good turnaround,” said first-year coach Eddie Smith, a former assistant who took over the team a couple of weeks ago when Justin Combs left for Magoffin County. “The kids played their hearts out. We also changed our offensive scheme. We tried to run a little more, and we were able to control the ball. We had it for all but two minutes in the first quarter. We couldn’t throw because we played in an absolute monsoon.”
“They are playing with a lot of confidence. They are an improved football team,” Creech said. “They gave up 55 points to Rowan County last year, then shut them out Saturday.”
With nine starters back on both offense and defense, the Tigers expect to be much more competitive this season. Will Sexton, who passed for 893 yards and ran for 525 in eight games last year, returns for his senior season at quarterback and will bring back several of his favorite targets, including tight end Logan Gabbard and receivers Chance Smith and Matthan Fields.
Sexton scored both touchdowns in the win over Rowan, one covering 25 yards and the other 45 yards. The Tigers also recorded a safety.
“They have several athletes, but I think he’s the best one,” Creech said. “He can throw it, he can run, and he’s strong and fast.”
Chandler Hacker had over 100 yards rushing to lead Clay’s ground attack against Rowan. The offensive front also returns, including center Ryan Nicholson, guards Logan Bowling and Tyson Deeds and tackles Jacob Deaton and McKinlee Hatton.
Senior linebacker Tyler Fields, who had a team-high 132 tackles last year, is back to lead the defense, along with junior end Jacob Deaton and tackles Connor Hensley and Tyler Harris.
Creech alternated his backs throughout the Pulaski County game and several played well behind a strong performance from an improved offensive line as Quintin Mickens gained 91 yards, Kennon Napier picked up 76 and Chase Coker added 29.
“We know it will be a physical game. Harlan County plays tough,” Smith said. “We saw them at the Pulaski County game on Friday and they stayed with the run almost the entire time. That wasn’t something we were expecting, so we’re glad we went. They spread it out in their scrimmage and used their speed. We have some challenges trying to match up with them. We have to find a way to match up with their speed and try to control the clock as much as possible and use our quarterback in our running game. We want to have a much more competitive game than last year. We had eight running clocks against us last year. Our goal this year is to not let that happen.”
Harlan County could be without a couple of its top players on Friday. Junior linebacker Caleb Carmical missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury that is being examined this week. Junior defensive tackle Lamar Burkhart, who played well in his first start, suffered a knee injury against Pulaski County and will miss a couple of weeks, but the injury isn’t season-ending as originally feared, according to Creech. Senior linebacker/running Rhett Alred is expected to play after suffering a bruised knee last week.
Creech said Braden Shelton could move from nose guard to tackle to replace Burkhart this week, with Jake Casolari taking over at nose guard. Robert Burgan could also see action at tackle.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Creech said the game is sponsored by the National Guard and is being billed as the “National Guard: Battle of the Week.”
“We are going to recognize our military and all our veterans,” Creech said. “The National Guard will be presenting MVPs of the game and a bowl champion at the conclusion of the game. An inflatable mascot will also be on display throughout the game.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134