Bears one win from a regional title

By winning back-to-back road playoff games at Pulaski County and North Laurel, the Harlan County Black Bears made history with two road playoff wins for the first time in the 10-year history of the school.

They could set a new record Friday in Somerset and earn their third Class 5A, Region 4 title, but it will be far from easy against Southwestern (10-2), the prohibitive favorite in the region since the season began.

“Their overall team speed and discipline are very impressive. They are very well coached and sound in what they do,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “There’s no tricking them. They are sound and will be in position.”

“We have a group of hard-working boys who love football,” said Larry French, who is in his fourth season as coach of the Warriors. “We’ve got some speed and that helps a lot if you can get around the corner and get a step on somebody. But at this time of the year, everyone has speed.”

Southwestern features a big-play attack led by senior running back Patric Edwards, who has rushed for 1,672 yards and scored 29 touchdowns in 11 games. Junior quarterback Drew Sawyers has added 961 yards on the ground and completed 72 of 109 passes for 1,215 yards. Junior receiver J.P. Vaught has 46 catches for 844 yards and six touchdowns.

Harlan County (7-5) also has a few big-play threats in its lineup with seniors Quintin Mickens and Tyrese Simmons rushing for 742 and 710 yards, respectively. Senior receiver Devon Rodrigues has a team-high 40 catches for 511 yards. Junior quarterback Colby Cochran had a huge game in last week’s win over North Laurel with 105 yards rushing.

“They have an outstanding team with a lot of weapons,” French said of the Bears. “They can run the ball and have good size. They also play very good defense and are very aggressive.”

Creech says the Bears can’t afford to repeat some of the mistakes of a week ago, including two on special teams — a bad snap and a blocked punt.

“You play on the road against a Larry French team that is averaging in the 40s, your mistakes have to be minimal to none,” Creech said.

Creech knows the Bears’ defense, led by Garry Henson with 111 tackles and Caleb Carmical with 102 tackles, will face a different type of challenge against the speedy Warriors.

“Three of our last four games have been against ground-and-pound teams. Not that those teams didn’t have athletes, but it’s a different approach,” Creech said. “They are looking to get outside as much as possible, while the other teams we’ve played hit it up between the tackles. It’s definitely an adjustment for our defense.”

After starting the season by losing four of five, Harlan County has lost only once over the last couple of months.

“We’ve won six of our last seven and you can see the confidence level growing,” Creech said. “That was big for us last week, getting down 14-0. Our kids never wavered and had confidence they could come back and win. I think winning four straight has a lot to do with that. Once you get to this point of the season, you’ve got to be able to play a little bit.”

Harlan County is 1-3 against the Warriors, losing the last three, including the 2011 regional finals, after winning the first meeting between the two schools in the first round of the 2009 playoffs.

If the Bears could pull off the upset Friday, they would earn the third regional football championship. Harlan County defeated Pulaski County in the regional finals in 2010 and 2012.

“These guys are making history. I told them no Harlan County had even won back-to-back road playoff games, so no Harlan County team has won back-to-back-to-back road playoff games,” Creech said. “I’ve been blessed twice in my coaching career to be able to practice on Thanksgiving, and they are four quarters away from getting that opportunity. We have to take it one game at a time and one play at a time.”