For the first time in four tries, the Lincoln County Patriots know the feeling of leaving Harlan County alive.
Lincoln County (3-8) moved on to the Region 4 semifinals by knocking off the Black Bears for the first time, avenging playoff loses at HCHS in 2011, 2012 and 2013 with a 40-35 victory on Friday.
Harlan County (4-7) earned a home playoff game with three straight district victories, showing improved maturity after starting the season 1-5. The Bears returned to some of their youthful mistakes in the playoff loss, turning the ball over three times and getting whistled for nine penalties in the first half while making crucial mental errors on special teams that kept Lincoln drives alive.
The Bears appeared to be in control with a 29-20 lead as Lincoln lined up to punt the ball away, but HCHS failed to cover a receiver and punter Austin Greer found Matt Taylor for a 20-yard gain and a first down. Sophomore fullback Tra Carey broke free up the middle for a 38-yard touchdown three plays later. Teron Mitchell hit the extra point to pull the Patriots within two.
Harlan County drove inside the Lincoln 30 before giving the ball up on downs. Carey broke free again, this time for a 51-yard run that set up quarterback Bryson Yaden for a 5-yard TD run with 11:53 left in the game to put the Patriots up by four.
A fumble put the Patriots back in business on the HCHS 25. Yaden went in from the 1 six plays later and Mitchell hit the extra point for an 11-point lead with 9:34 left.
Greer picked off a pass with 7:51 left, but the Harlan County defense held this time and started a comeback by driving 90 yards in seven plays. Dylan Cornett started the drive with a 42-yard run, and Jacob Branson picked up one first down by running and another with a pass to Christian Hall. After a 10-yard run by Cornett, Branson ran the final 6 yards to pull the Bears within five with 4:44 left.
The Harlan County defense held to give the offense the ball back on the 25, but the Bears were only able to pick up one first down before Greer picked off another Branson pass near midfield with 23.4 seconds left to end the game.
The HCHS offense looked great early with a nine-play, 63-yard drive to open the game. Tyrese Simmons and Hall each had big plays out of the no-huddle offense before Cornett went the final 2 yards. Keenon Napier added the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead with 8:20 to play in the first quarter.
Lincoln star Tanner McAninch took over at that point, first lining up at quarterback to find Yaden for a 61-yard pass on the Patriots’ first offensive play, then returning a punt 53 yards to put his team ahead 14-8.
Branson teamed with Simmons for a 67-yard touchdown pass down the HCHS sideline with 9:27 to play in the second quarter. Jordan Kelly’s extra point gave the Bears a brief 15-14 lead.
Carey went up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown run with 8:16 left in the first half.
Napier appeared to answer for the Bears when he returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards for a touchdown, but after one of several lengthy discussions by the officials it was ruled that a HCHS player had signaled a fair catch before Napier grabbed the ball out of the air. It was one of two Harlan County touchdowns called back on the night.
Tackles for losses by Napier and Garry Henson gave the ball back to the Bears late in the half and Cornett went in from the 3 with 3:28 to play. Kelly’s extra point gave HCHS a 22-20 lead.
Nathan Hazlett missed a 37-yard field goal attempt as time expired in the first half.
Another great pass from Branson and even greater catch by Simmons, who went over two Lincoln defenders, extended Harlan County’s lead to nine with his 46-yard touchdown play.
Branson completed 12 of 24 passes for 221 yards. Harlan County had 205 yards on the ground, led by Cornett with 112 yards on 24 carries.
Lincoln County will travel to Pulaski County, the defending 5A state champs, on Friday in the second round.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134