HCHS, Harlan to close district slates
While their chances of finishing as the top seed are not good after a 27-16 loss at Whitley County, the Harlan County Black Bears still can grab a share of the District 8 title of 5A with a win on Friday over visiting Perry Central.
“Seeding wise we are out of the top seed unless we get some help (a Letcher Central upset of Whitley County), but if we win Friday we are co-district champs,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “We’re looking at it as a chance to grab a share of the district title and win on Senior Night.”
Harlan County (3-5 overall, 2-1 district) had a chance to clinch the district title and the top seed last week at Whitley County but couldn’t hang on to a 16-7 halftime lead at Whitley County. If Harlan County and Whitley County both win they would tie North Laurel for the district title. The Bears have only one non-district win at this point over Ashland Blazer and would likely finish third in a tie-breaker situation. The Bears have plenty of incentive to play well Friday though because if they lose they would fall behind Perry Central and finish fourth in the district standings.
After back-to-back 2-8 seasons in his first two years at Perry Central, former Harlan County coach Tom Larkey has led a transformation this season as the Commodores won their first six games before falling to district rivals Whitley County and North Laurel the past two weeks.
“The biggest improvement has been the attitude with the kids not missing practice by coming up with every little reason,” Larkey said. “It’s been a new attitude this year.”
As with all Larkey teams, the Commodores have counted on a strong ground game with junior Jayden Neace rushing for 1,372 yards and senior Jacob Woolum adding 729 yards.
“They are leading in the state in rushing and are one of the best in scoring,” said Creech, who questioned whether the Bears should be favored since Perry Central has won six games compared to three for the Bears. “Bill Parcells used to say you are what your record says you are.”
“The kids got in the weight room this past winter and really got strong,” Larkey said of the reasons for this year’s turnaround. “Those same kids that ran the ball last year are doing the same things as last year, but they got bigger and stronger and faster. We have some speed and some basketball players, so we have some athletes.”
“You will not beat a coach Larkey team if you can’t stop the run,” Creech said. “They will try to ball control, run right at you and be very physical. They do what they do well.”
One athlete the Commodores will likely be without is Woolum, who will reportedly have to sit out after being ejected in the loss to North Laurel last week. Woolum is second on the team in rushing, first in receiving with 22 catches and first in tackles with 98. Perry is also without senior receiver Skylar Johnson due to a shoulder injury.
Harlan County features three of the region’s top playmakers in running back Quintin Mickens, running back/receiver Tyrese Simmons and receiver Devon Rodrigues.
“They have a lot of good athletes,” Larkey said. “They have a strong line and Tyrese (Simmons) and (Quinten) Mickens are outstanding running backs. It’s hard to defend those guys and also the pass. I think we may have to open up things a little bit and try to throw it some. We have tried to do that more, but we haven’t always been successful.”
Senior Night festivities begin at 5:30 p.m., with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m.
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Third place in District 7 of Class A will be on the line when Harlan and Pineville renew the state’s third oldest continuing series in the Battle for U.S. 119 on Friday in Pineville. The last three matchups in the series have gone down to the wire with Harlan winning 23-21 in 2014 on a last-second field goal by Boone Allison and Pineville winning 43-36 in 2015 and 22-19 in 2016 as quarterback Tucker Woolum took control of the game last fall with 185 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
“It came down to the last play the last couple of years,” Harlan coach John Luttrell said. “This has been a great rivalry and it doesn’t matter what the records are. I told our kids they would play their best game against us and will be ready to play. We have to match that and be ready to play and execute. We have to two regular season games left and we have to try to win those and give ourselves some momentum going into the playoffs, even though we’ll have to travel.”
Woolum and most of the Lions’ other key players from last year graduated and Pineville (2-7 overall, 0-2 district) will bring a five-game losing streak into the contest. The Lions have given up just under 43 points a game the last five weeks.
“We’re having a tough time and it starts with depth,” Pineville coach Bart Elam said. “We’re going into most games with 17, 18, 19 able-bodied kids and 10 of those are very young or very inexperienced. We’re having to throw them in the fire and they are having a hard time. We’re just trying to stay positive and develop those kids for the future. We’ve also had a lot of injuries. This week is as close as we’ve been to being healthy all year. We hope to have a little more depth this week.”
The Lions were given a boost by the recent return of senior running back Lawrence Simpson from an injury. Simpson has rushed for 596 yards, just behind junior Matt Golden and his 601 yards on the ground.
“(Simpson) was hurt for a couple of games, but he gave Willamsburg some trouble. He’s a hard runner who was able to get some decent runs,” Luttrell said. “That will be a key, making sure we control their running game. On defense, I expect them to stack the box like they have the past couple of years and try to stop our run. We have to do some things to counter that and get the ball in other places.”
Harlan (2-6 overall, 0-2 district) also features a ground-oriented offense led by junior John Brady Brock with 485 yards rushing and senior Kendal Brock with 267 yards. Junior quarterback Kilian Ledford has rushed for 156 yards and passed for 440.
“They are well-coached up front and Harlan teams always have been,” Elam said. “I watched them early on and then again this week and they are improved, especially up front. They’ve lost some close games. I don’t know if we’re to their level, or even close, but we’ll see what happens.”
The loser of Friday’s game will finish fourth in District 7 and travel to Hazard in the first round of the playoffs. The winner will place third and play at Pikeville in the opening round.