Name the southeastern Kentucky team that has played or will play three opponents this season that participated in their respective state championship game the previous November?
At some point, the 2016 Harlan County Black Bears could be the answer to a trivia question in any debate about what southeastern Kentucky team plays the toughest schedule.
This year’s Bears opened the season with a hard-fought 26-14 loss at Pulaski County, the defending 5A state runner up.
After a win over Clay County, the Bears traveled to three-time defending 3A state champion Belfry and lost 47-12.
Following last week’s down-to-the-wire 15-13 loss at Knox Central, the Bears take on one more state heavyweight this week at home as Johnson Central, last year’s 4A state runner-up, visits for a 7:30 p.m. game.
“Playing the competition and being able to compete against the competition are two different things,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “Outside the Belfry game, I think we’ve been competitive in every game we’ve been in, and we hope to not just be competitive but to win those games. But I think it’s an improvement to go from losing 57-0 to 26-14. We’re making progress toward winning those games.”
The Eagles are off to another good start with wins over Capital, W.Va. (23-6), Lexington Catholic (54-27) and South Charleston, W.Va. (30-6) to open the season.
“I’m not sure what level we are yet,” said Johnson Central’s Jim Matney, one of the state’s most successful coaches in a 33-year career that included 20 years at Sheldon Clark and the last 13 at Johnson Central. “We just want to continue improving each week. We’ve played pretty well so far, but we’re still trying to figure out what we can do and what we can’t do and who can play in this spot or that spot. It’s still very early, so we’re learning as we go and trying to correct what we can and get better.”
As usual, the Eagles also feature a balanced offensive attack focused on power football out of the belly series. Joe Jackson has rushed for 386 yards on 49 carries. Cody Rice, a freshman, has added 204 yards on 12 carries. Blake Gamble has contributed 171 yards on 31 carries.
“I compare them to Belfry as far as their offense,” Creech said. “They will do what they do out of the belly with jet sweeps and power out of the wing and bone. It’s responsibility football. It looks like it would be easy to defend, and on paper it looks great, but Johnson Central and Belfry have been running that same offense for years and they keep piling on the points and the wins. Our guys have to be where they are supposed to be, and they have to play physical.”
The Eagles don’t throw very often with Geordan Blanton completing three of five attempts for 50 yards and freshman Riley Preece connecting on four of six for 81 yards.
Senior linebackers Nathaniel Wilcox and Devon Patrick lead the Johnson Central defense with 21 and 15 tackles, respectively.
Harlan County brings a 1-3 record into the game, but the Bears played both Pulaski County and Knox Central close, and Matney noticed the difference from a year ago.
“Obviously, they are an improved football team, even though their record doesn’t show it,” he said. “They’ve played tough teams and played very well. They have their entire team back from last year and are a pretty good team. At some point, they could play very well this season.”
Creech said junior linebacker Caleb Carmical saw his first action of the season last week and could start against Johnson Central as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. Junior running back/cornerback Paul Stapleton will be released this week to participate in practice, his first action since undergoing knee surgery last winter. Junior defensive lineman/tight end Lamar Burkhart could be released next week after being out since suffering an injury in the season opener at Pulaski County.
Harlan County will open its district schedule next Friday at home against defending district champ North Laurel.
“We’re looking to carry on the momentum of playing hard,” Creech said. “We want to play physical and play hard all four quarters.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134