Bears, Jags preparing for rematch

As his Black Bears finished off a hard-fought 23-13 win at North Laurel earlier this season, Harlan County coach Eddie Creech had a feeling this may not be the last time he’d see the Jaguars this year. The rematch is set for Friday in London in the second round of the 5A playoffs.

“After our first game, on the bus ride home, I told my coaches I thought we’d see North Laurel again in the playoffs,” Creech said.

The loss to HCHS was the second of two straight for the Jaguars, who fell 16-14 to Somerset the previous week. North bounced back from the Harlan County loss with wins over Whitley County, Letcher Central and Perry Central to clinch a tie for the District 8 title. The Jaguars ended up winning the tie-breaker and bring a 9-2 record and a five-game winning streak into Friday’s game.

“I think our guys are starting to get a little better,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said. “They still have a long way to go, but they better get there now.”

Harlan County (6-5) has won five of six since losing four straight early in the year when injuries took away numerous starters. The Bears are coming off an impressive 40-0 win last week at Pulaski County in the opening round of the playoffs.

“They have a good football team,” Larkey said. “I remember all those guys when they were freshmen. They have grown into good football players. We expect a tough, physical game.”

“Our kids are playing with confidence going into a place where they have already played. Both teams know each other pretty well,” Creech said.

North Laurel features something of a three-headed attack on offense with running back Jose Rodriguez gaining 988 yards with 12 touchdowns, followed closely by running back Matt Sizemore with 913 yards and 15 touchdowns and quarterback Cole McWhorter with 791 yards and eight touchdowns. McWhorter has completed 59 of 95 passes for 1,002 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nick Broughton and Dalton Smith lead in catches with 21 and 20, respectively.

“The thing about North Laurel is they are just so big and strong and physical,” Creech said. “They line up and run right at people. They are not a finesse team. If you can’t match their physicality then you are just not going to beat them.”

Senion linebacker Devon Banaszak is by far the top tackler for the Jaguars with 117 on the season. Broughton and Sizemore are next with 76 and 70, respectively, for a defense that has given up only 123 points this season, which places them third in the state among 5A teams.

“They are giving up 11 points per game. They have given up more than 16 points only once all season,” Creech said.

Harlan County rolled up 307 yards on the ground in last week’s 40-0 win at Pulaski County, but Creech knows the Bears will need more variety on offense against the Jaguars.

“We expect them to load the box. They take great pride in stopping the run. We know we’ll have to find some ways to move the football,” he said.

Quintin Mickens and Tyrese Simmons lead the HCHS ground attack with 733 and 706 yards, respectively. Christian Hall and Garry Henson each had big games against Pulaski County and are next with 208 and 194 yards, respectively. Devon Rodrigues has been the Bears’ big-play threat at receiver with 37 catches for 437 yards.

“We know they are capable of breaking a run,” Larkey said. “They have three guys who can break a touchdown at any given time. You have to try and contain that and slow them down.”