If Saturday’s state middle school playoff contest between New Harlan and Cumberland is any indication, the future of Harlan County High School football is very bright.
The New Harlan Patriots held off Cumberland 50-34 in a shootout that featured arguably as impressive a group of athletes as the county has seen in recent memory.
“We have a lot of weapons across the county and it will be good to get these guys together next year,” New Harlan coach Chad Wood said. “You have a good mixture of size and speed. There are a lot of options.”
“The future for county football is still good because you have kids from Evarts, New Harlan and Cumberland,” said Cumberland coach Wes Bailey. “You get those guys together and the high school will continue to be good.”
New Harlan tailback Paul Stapleton powered the Patriots in the win. The eighth-grade back recorded six touchdowns and over 300 yards rushing on 20 carries.
“If it’s working, we’ll keep going back to it, and they weren’t able to stop it all night long,” Wood said. “Our linemen did a great job blocking out there, and he did a good job getting it in the end zone.”
New Harlan recovered an onside kick to open the game and set up the first score. Stapleton capitalized with a touchdown just two plays later.
New Harlan added to the lead on its next drive. This time, Stapleton went in from 71-yards out for the score. He also ran in the two-point conversion to make it 14-0.
Cumberland answered with a score on its next possession. Tyrese Simmons scored on a 5-yard run with just under one minute remaining in the first quarter. Simmons connected with Devon Rodrigues for the two-point conversion to make it 14-8.
New Harlan’s next score came with quarterback Jacob Branson delivered a 35-yard pass to Cameron Carmical on fourth down. Stapleton’s two-point run made it 22-8.
Cumberland closed to wiuthin one possession with just 12 seconds left in the half. The score was set up by a failed fake punt by the Patriots at their own 20-yard line. Simmons connected with standout eighth-grader Chase Coker on a 15-yard touchdown pass to make it 22-14.
New Harlan took control in the third quarter as Stapleton scored on runs of 9 yards and 45 yards. Stapleton also added a two-point conversion as the lead grew to 36-14.
Cumberland responded with another big play when Simmons found Xavier Simmons for a 75-yard pass. Simmons was stripped of the ball at the New Harlan 5 by Colby King. However, A.J. Simmons raced down the field on the play and came up with the loose ball in the end zone for the touchdown with less than a minute left in the third quarter to make it 36-20.
Stapleton went 31 yards for his fifth touchdown with 7:05 left in the game. He threw a shovel pass to Carmical for the two-point conversion and a 44-20 lead.
Coker kept the Redskins with striking distance with an 80-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kickoff. He also added the two-point conversion.
Colby King set up the next New Harlan score with an interception. The turnover turned into a sixth touchdown for Stapleton, who scored on a 1-yard run.
Cumberland turned in the game’s final score with seconds remaining. Tyrese Simmons found Xavier Simmons for a 16-yard touchdown pass.
“It was a shootout. They just shot more times,” Bailey said. “We turned the ball over too many times, and you can’t do that against good teams and win. I don’t know if that’s the most scored against them all year, but I feel pretty good about that. We’ve had problems all year tackling and that was our downfall again tonight.”
New Harlan will host Hazard in the round of 16 in the Division III playoffs on Saturday.