LOG MOUNTAIN — A New Harlan offense that couldn’t be stopped during a 10-game winning streak came up empty on four trips into Pikeville territory in the second half on Saturday in the Region 4 finals at Bell County High School.
Trailing by two points going into the half, the Patriots had several golden opportunities to take the lead, but mistakes and an inability to pick up tough yards kept New Harlan (10-2) from advancing to the state final four as Pikeville held on for a 16-14 victory.
The Patriots had their best chance in the fourth quarter after a booming 57-yard punt by Kobe Burkhart backed up the Pikeville offense. New Harlan held on three downs, helped by a hard hit on Pikeville quarterback Peyton Boyd-Blair by Jordan Steele, and forced the Panthers to punt from the end zone. A short punt that went out of bounds gave New Harlan the ball at the Pikeville 20.
Matt Brown ran 11 yards for a first down on the 9. Josh Turner picked up three yards, then Brown went to the 3 before losing a fumble with 2:16 left. The New Harlan defense almost held again before Blair teamed with Jackson Hensley for a 29-yard pass on third-and-12 to clinch the victory.
“It was a hard-fought game, and my hat is off to Pikeville. They made plays when they had to have them. We put ourselves in position to win but weren’t able to capitalize on it,” New Harlan coach Brett Johnson said. “But I couldn’t be any prouder of our team, to win 10 games in a row and finish 10-2. This eighth-grade bunch has won 18 games in two years. We’ll miss them next year, but we’re looking forward to watching them the next four years at Harlan County High School.”
Each team put together two scoring drives in the first half after each defense made a stop on the opening two drives.
Pikeville drove to the New Harlan 5 before two incomplete passes ended the threat.
Turner had a 46-yard run on the Patriots’ first possession before that drive also ended.
Pikeville scored first when Blair teamed with Grayson Harris for a 44-yard touchdown pass with 6.2 seconds left in the opening quarter. Harris also added the two-point conversion.
New Harlan kept the ball most of the second quarter, scoring twice. The first TD came when Brown took a pitch from Jay Harris and went 37 yards down the sideline. Turner, who led the Patriots with 112 yards on 13 carries, added the two-point conversion to pull the Patriots even with 4:14 left in the second quarter.
Harris recovered the ensuing onside kick and the Patriots marched 46 yards in eight plays. A 16-yard run by Brown pushed New Harlan inside the Pikeville 20, and Turner went 16 yards for a touchdown three plays later. Harris was stopped on the two-point conversion attempt as the Patriots led by six with 2:12 to play in the half.
New Harlan missed a chance to take control after Turner recovered an onside kick. Cade Slater picked off a Harris pass on the next play.
Pikeville made the Patriots pay for the mistake with what turned out to be the winning touchdown drive. Elisha Smallwood appeared to end the threat with interception on the 4, but the officials wiped out the play when New Harlan was penalized for roughing the passer. Another personal foul penalty in the end zone moved the Panthers inside the 5, and Blair went in from the 1 with 40.5 seconds left before halftime. Blair threw to Hensley for the go-ahead two-point conversion.
While several of the Patriots’ leaders will be moving to HCHS next season, at least half of the team’s top players are in the seventh grade. Turner, Burkhart, Steele, Hunter Helton and Brown are among the top players in the seventh-grade class in eastern Kentucky. Hunter Blevins, Brett Roark, Gavin Ewald and Gary Jones are among the Patriots’ other returning starters.
“They are a good group,” Johnson said of the seventh-graders. “A lot of them were thrown into the fire this year, and they really improved. I’m looking forward to trying to build on what they accomplished this year.”