Bears capture Region 4 championship

SOMERSET — From 1-4 to regional champions, the Harlan County Black Bears continued perhaps the most unlikely journey to a championship in county football history with a 23-18 win Friday against regional favorite Southwestern on the Warriors’ home field.

After starting the season with four losses in their first five games, the Bears reeled off wins in seven of their last eight games, including playoff victories on the road at Pulaski County, North Laurel and Southwestern.

“Our guys never quit,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “We started 1-5 the previous two years and 1-4 this year with the same group of kids, but they kept fighting and kept sticking it out. All kudos go to them. They were the ones who kept showing up on Monday after losses. They deserve it.”

Harlan County built a 16-0 halftime lead on a touchdown run by Quintin Mickens and pass from Colby Cochran to Devon Rodridgues, then had to hold off a late Southwestern rally as the Warriors threw for three touchdowns in the final quarter. A 35-yard TD run by Mickens after Southwestern had pulled within four helped clinch the victory, even though the Warriors scored in the closing seconds.

An onside kick after the last Southwestern touchdown went backwards and the Bears were able to run out the clock and will take an 8-5 record to Madison Southern next Friday in the 5A state semifinals.

The HCHS defense held one of the state’s most potent offenses, averaging over 40 points a game, to no points and only 47 yards rushing through three quarters.

“I have to give coach (Denny) Farmer and coach (Chad) Wood credit. They had those guys schooled,” Creech said. “Our kids went out and executed the game plan to perfection. You won’t shut out a team like Southwestern at home in the regional finals, but that’s about as close as you can get.”

Harlan County benefited from an early mistake as senior lineman Robert Burgan recovered a fumbled pitch on a reverse at the Bears’ 48 on the first play from scrimmage.

The Black Bears marched 52 yards in 11 plays out of the wishbone attack as Mickens picked up two first downs and Garry Henson added one before Mickens went the final 20 yards on a third-and-eight play with 6:05 left in the first quarter. After two procedure penalties against the Warriors, quarterback Colby Cochran went in for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead.

Led by Patric Edwards and J.P. Vaught, the Warriors’ two big-play threats all season, Southwestern drove deep into HCHS territory before another turnover ended the threat as senior cornerback Jacob Branson came out with the loose ball at the Harlan County 16.

Harlan County put together another scoring drive late in the half, thanks in large part to a 24-yard pass to Tyrese Simmons on a fourth-and-12 play. Cochran found Rodrigues in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass on third and 10 with 47.2 seconds to play in the first half. After two more procedure penalties against the Warriors, Cochran went in for the two-point conversion and a 16-0 lead at the break.

“I thought our kids fought hard there in the second half, and they did some good things, but they also did some bad things,” Southwestern coach Larry French said. “We did some bad things in the first half. We came out and fumbled the football on the opening play, and we seemed to be playing on our heels the rest of the half. If we could have kept them from scoring there right before the half, it could have been a different story. That took the wind out of us a little bit.”

The Warriors threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one each to J.P. Vaught, Cameron Miller and Blake Lanham as the Bears took advantage of three turnovers, including a Henson fumble and a blocked punt for the second straight week.

Mickens broke free for a 35-yard touchdown with 1:16 left to all but seal the victory. Marcus Kelly’s extra point pushed the Bears’ lead to 23-12 with 1:16 to play. Southwestern scored with 8.2 seconds left on its third TD pass to pull within five.

The win capped a three-game postseason streak of road victories and was the most impressive of them all against the team that had been favored all season. It was the third regional championship in school history following victories at home in 2010 and 2012 against PulaskI County. The Bears had lost in the first round the last three years.

“You’re talking about a quality football team; a team sitting here at 10-2, ranked in the top five in the state and coached by a legend and with great speed,” Creech said. “We didn’t come down here just to show up. Our boys came down here with fire in their eyes, and they went out there and got it.”

———

Harlan County 23, Southwestern 18

Harlan County 8 8 0 7 — 23

Southwestern 0 0 0 18 — 18

HC — Mickens 20 run (Cochran run)

HC — Rodrigues 16 pass from Cochran (Cochran run)

SW — Vaught 54 pass from Edwards (pass failed)

SW — Miller 35 pass from Saywers (kick blocked)

HC — Mickens 35 run (Kelly kick)

SW — Lanham 22 pass from Sawyers (run failed)

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HCHS SWHS

First downs 18 10

Rushes-yards 50-240 25-70

Passing 56 218

Comp-Att-Int 4-12-0 15-23-1

Punts-Avg 2-30 1-36

Fumbles-Lost 4-3 2-2

Penalties-Yards 7-70 9-44

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INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING—Harlan County, Mickens 20-112, Henson 11-52, Hall 5-35, Cochran 7-27, Carmical 5-12, Simmons 2-2. Southwestern, Edwards 12-43, Sawyers 9-21, Barnes 1-7, Vaught 3-(-1).

PASSING—Harlan County, Cochran 4-12-0-56. Southwestern, Sawyers 14-17-1-164, Edwards 1-5-0-54, Vaught 0-1-0-0.

RECEIVING—Harlan County, Simmons 2-33, Rodrigues 1-16, Joseph 1-7. Southwestern, Vaught 6-83, Lanham 2-40, Edwards 1-60, Miller 1-35.