When he arrived here in 2008, Tom Larkey taught the Harlan County Black Bears to win almost overnight, leading them to four district titles and two regional crowns in his first six years.
Turning the Perry Central football program around hasn’t gone as well for the future Hall of Fame coach, who brings a 2-6 team to Coal Miners Memorial Stadium on Friday to face the suddenly rejuvenated Bears.
“We’ve got to start doing things better ourselves than what we’ve been doing,” said Larkey, who will bring his new team to Harlan County on Friday. “We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot, fumbling balls and making mistakes on special team. We haven’t been a very good tackling team. Of course, it’s kind of late to make improvement in that. We have to avoid turnovers, because we’ve been having four or five every game. You can’t do that.
Larkey said depth was also a problem for the Commodores with nine starters out for the season due to injuries.
“We’re slim right now. We’re pretty thin,” he said. “We have nine kids out for the year, and all were starters at one point. If we have to sub, we’re hurting.”
Harlan County suffered its first losing season in Larkey’s last year as coach, falling to 2-9, and started in a similar fashion this year with a 1-5 record before knocking off defending district champ Letcher Central 45-35 and then Whitley County 50-43 last week to improve to 3-5. The late surged has helped HCHS clinch second place in District 8 of 5A and a home playoff game.
“I’ve watched them throughout the year, and they’ve made a lot of improvements,” Larkey said. “(Jacob) Branson has done a good job stepping in there (at quarterback), and Dylan (Cornett) is having a big year. We have to stop him and play good defense.They will try to stop our run, because that’s what we mainly do.”
Cornett, a senior tailback, followed his 352-yard rushing effort against Letcher Central by running for 227 yards and four touchdowns on 33 carries against Whitley County. He has 907 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season.
“Dylan has had two solid games in a row, but he knows where his help comes from,” Creech said. “Our offensive line has really been a strength the last two games for us.”
Branson, a sophomore who made his first start at quarterback last week after senior Jarett Ford left the team, was impressive in his debut as he completed 10 of 15 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
“Jacob came out and made some good solid decisions,” Creech said. “It was a nip-and-tuck game, and Jacob stayed in there and led us down the field for the winning score.”
The Commodores began the season with wins over Lynn Camp and Breathitt County but haven’t been close to victory since, giving up at least 30 points in all six games.
As usual with a Larkey-coached team, the Commodores feature a run-oriented attack led by senior Jordan Combs, with 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns, and senior Seth Napier, with 340 yards and eight touchdowns. Three Perry Central quarterbacks have attempted only 23 passes with Napier connecting on 10 of 19 for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’re expecting nothing short of a dogfight against a good, solid team,” Creech said. “They are a lot like North Laurel, as far as offensive style. If you don’t stop them, they will grind the clock out on you. They are averaging 225 yards rushing a game, so we have to match their physicality.”
Freshman linebacker Kenton Noble leads the Perry Central defense with 61 tackles. Jacob Woolum, a sophomore defensive back, is second with 47.
Larkey says he’s looking forward to his return to HCHS.
“I hope we can go over there and play competitive. We hope to bring this little bunch over there and be respectable,” he said. “I’m looking forward to coming back. I may see a few friends while I’m there, who knows.”
“Coach Larkey and his family have always been great to me personally,” Creech said. “It will probably feel a little awkward at first to be on the opposite sideline.”