After playing the defending 4A state runner-up, the defending 3A state champ and the defending 5A state runner-up in the season’s opening five weeks, the Harlan County Black Bears plan to test a theory about the importance of playing a tough schedule to prepare for district competition.
Harlan County survived the brutal first half of its schedule but won only once. The second season begins Friday at home against defending District 8 champion North Laurel.
“It’s coaching talk and cliche, but it’s the truth. You are literally starting a new season,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “Everything that has happened good to this point is out the window, and everything that has happened bad is out the window. All their aspirations and off-season goals are still in front of them. When you’ve been training since December and have only one win to show for it, there’s a hunger about you. They want to win and we want to win. I’m anxious for us to have another opportunity Friday.”
Despite their 1-4 record to this point, the Bears are the District 8 favorite, according to North Laurel coach Chris Larkey, who led the Jaguars to the title last season.
“They have everybody back, so I think they should be favored to win the district,” he said. “I know they’ve played a tough schedule and played two teams that will be in the state championship, maybe three.”
Creech has been impressed by what the Jaguars have accomplished, including a run to last year’s regional finals.
“They are a solid football team from top to bottom. They are good on offense, defense and special teams,” Creech said. “They are a typical Chris Larkey team. They are tough. They hit the weights over the winter, so they will be physical. They will line up and test your will defensively. If you can’t stop them from running off tackle they will do it all night. Defensively, they will be very aggressive and try to take your running game away. They are very good at running and stopping the run.”
North Laurel (3-2) hasn’t played as well as last year through the first half of the season, losing 55-0 to 4A power Wayne County in the season opener and 47-25 to Lincoln County last week. The Jaguars trailed by eight late in the game and were driving when two straight turnovers in the final minute led to 14 straight points.
“We lack leadership with our upperclassmen, and we still make a lot of mistakes because we have a lot of younger kids in there this season,” Larkey said. “We’re working to get better. It will be a tough game. We have to cut down on penalties and improve our football IQ. It cost us last week, making dumb mistakes. Lincoln scored two touchdowns in the last 50 seconds. You can’t make a kid get ready to play. They have to get ready themselves.”
“A couple of their losses can be compared to some of our losses,” Creech said. “Their game last week was like the Pulaski game for us where you are in the game but a couple of mistakes really hurt you. I expect nothing short of a dogfight Friday night.”
Jose Rodriguez has led a balanced North Laurel ground attack through four games with 417 yards rushing. Matt Sizemore and Cole McWhorter have 255 and 203 yards, respectively.
McWhorter has completed 14 of 30 passes for 280 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Rodriguez also leads the North Laurel defense with 30 tackles. McWhorter is close behind with 28. Nick Broughton and Matt Brooks have 25 and 24 tackles, respectively.
Harlan County has featured a balanced attack on offense with Quintin Mickens rushing for 291 yards, followed by Kennon Napier with 221 and Chase Coker with 183.
Jacob Branson has completed 29 of 52 passes for 512 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. Tyrese Simmons has 14 catches for 239 yards, including three catches for 105 yards last week. Colby King has nine catches for 147 yards. Both Simmons and King have three touchdown catches each.
Sophomore linebacker Garry Henson leads the HCHS defense with 36 tackles. Simmons and Kyton Joseph are next with 29 and 23 tackles, respectively.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134