A home playoff game will likely be on the line when the Harlan County Black Bears travel to Whitley County on Friday.
With North Laurel locking up the district championship and top seed last week by beating Letcher Central, everyone else is battling for the next best prize, which would mean a home playoff game and the chance to avoid state powers Pulaski County and Southwestern in the first round of the 5A playoffs.
Whitley County would still have to beat Letcher Central next week to take the second seed outright, but Harlan County would take over second with a win Friday because the Bears would own the head-to-head tie-breaker over either Whitley or Letcher.
“I’ve not shied away from the importance of this game. To get the two seed would be huge, to have a home playoff game,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “We’re two even teams, and whoever wins the turnover battle and executes has a good chance of getting the two seed. The kids know it’s the most important game they’ve played in.”
Containing Whitley County star senior quarterback Luke Woods (788 yards rushing and 633 yards passing through the first five games) is the top priority this week for the Bears, who kept Letcher star tailback Jaylin Williams from taking over in a win over Letcher Central two weeks ago.
“I think he’s the best quarterback we’ve faced,” Creech said. “He’s a dual threat. He can throw it over you or run it through you. Any team that plays Whitley County, he will be the focal point. If we can’t do anything with him, it will be hard to go down there and win.”
“I could write a book about Luke Woods,” said Whitley County coach Jason Chappell. “As good of an athlete he is, he is much more impressive as a young man. He is tremendous in everything he does. He was a Governor’s Scholar this summer and stays up until 1 a.m. doing his AP homework every night after practice. He leads our team in prayer every day and was adamant about our team learning the school fight song this summer. He’s tremendously talented and one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. His biggest attributes are his eyes and mind. We ask a lot of him mentally, and he’s got the unique ability to turn bad play calls by me into positive plays.”
Harlan County (2-5 overall, 1-1 district) is coming off its best performance of the season in the win over Letcher Central. Senior tailback Dylan Cornett ran for 252 yards against Letcher and leads the team with 680 yards rushing on the season.
“I’ve been very impressed with Harlan County,” Chappell said. “Coach Creech and his staff did a great job of getting numbers out, including several athletic kids who thrive in a more wide-open style of offense. They are extremely physical, something that I know those kids take pride in. Defensively, they are very aggressive and their athletes really run to the ball. I’ve seen them about four times and think they are an outstanding football team.”
One adjustment for the HCHS offense will be sophomore Jacob Branson taking over for senior Jarett Ford at quarterback. Ford left the team for what Creech described as “personal reasons.” Branson has been Ford’s backup the past two years and earned a starting job this season in the secondary. Ford also saw action in the backfield this season due to his running ability.
“I think the players and coaching staff have the ultimate confidence in Jacob,” Creech said. “Even when Jarett was the starter, Jacob was getting reps in practice and has done well in JV. We’re excited to see what he can get out there and do.”
Sophomore defensive back Quintin Mickens has led the HCHS defense with 72 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Caleb Carmical is second with 51, followed by Branson with 44 and freshman linebacker Garry Henson with 39.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134