A new high school football season begins Friday and both the Leslie County Eagles and Harlan Green Dragons are determined to quickly put the disappointment of 2013 behind them with a strong performance they hope will set the tone for a better 2014.
“You’d like to start off well, especially with a young team like we are,” Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said. “That would build a lot of momentum for us. We hope to get started on a positive note before we have a little two-week hiatus.”
“We had a bad year last year and it’s very important to get off to a good start and get that first win and get confidence going,” added Leslie County coach Eddie Melton. “We’re starting a lot of young players on both sides of the ball. We may have six or seven sophomores in there defensively at times, so it’s very important for those guys to get their confidence and be physical. We’re asking a lot out of them. We just want to get some momentum going in the right direction.
Leslie got off to a good start last year with wins over Harlan and Knott Central and was 3-2 at the midpoint of the season when everything fell apart. The Eagles closed the year with six straight losses, including a 44-28 defeat at Middlesboro in the first round of the 2A playoffs. Leslie was able to score at least 16 points in its last five games but had trouble stopping anyone, giving up just under 48 points a game after week five.
“Last year we felt we didn’t have a lot of depth and when we had some injuries to key people it really hurt us,” Melton said. “We also lacked discipline. We had some crucial penalties and crucial moments that cost us up to three games. We were right there and squandered opportunities.”
The Eagles bring back most of their key players from a year ago, including junior quarterback Kevin Whitaker, who brought Leslie back from a 21-14 deficit in the fourth quarter at Harlan last season with two touchdown passes to James Brock, who is now a senior.
Harlan had a chance to put the game away after stopping the Eagles on fourth down, but the Leslie defense responded and held on four downs.
Whitaker found Brock on a slant pass and he broke free for a 71-yard touchdown play. Leslie tried for the go-ahead two-point conversion but Whitaker’s pass went over Jared Feltner’s head.
Leslie recovered an onside kick at midfield to set up the second Whitaker to Brock connection, this one covering 26 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 56.8 seconds remaining. A pass interference penalty on a throw intended for tight end Blake Asher gave the Eagles with a first down on the 30.
One 15-yard penalty on Leslie after the touchdown and another on the kickoff gave Harlan a chance with the ball on the Leslie 27, but the Eagles held when a fourth down pass fell incomplete.
“I expect the same thing this year. It’s always a battle,” Melton said. “It’s always close when we play each other. Coach Donahue is a great coach and will always have his team ready, whether he’s got 15 players or 40. They appear to be pretty physical this year and will run the ball. We have to slow their running game down to be successful.”
Melton likes the Eagles’ potential for a big turnaround with several key players coming back.
“We feel like we can,” he said. “Players are tired of hitting and tackling each other, and we feel we can get going in the right direction. We have to take it one game at a time. Any time you come off a 3-7 season you can’t be overconfident. You have to focus on each game and try to build and get better.”
Whitaker and Brock both return this season and are among the major focuses for the Dragons going into the opening game.
“I think Whitaker is a terrific quarterback,” Donahue said. “He throws the ball well and he’s underestimated as a weapon. He’s a dual threat for them, and they have some kids on the outside who run well and catch the ball. They’re also big up front. They will be tough.”
Asher moves from tight end to anchor this year’s offensive line at right tackle. Ricky Cornett, a senior, is back at left tackle. The guards will be senior Michael Smith and junior Covey Smith. Tommy Guier, a sophomore, plays center. Tight end Brady Crisp, fullback C.J. Sebastian and tailback Austin Smith will take over key roles in the Leslie offense as sophomores.
Harlan posted a 2-9 mark last season season, finishing third in District 6 of Class A and also falling in the first round of the playoffs.
The Green Dragons, despite losing a large senior class, appeared to be improved in a 34-7 loss to Williamsburg in the Southeastern Kentucky Conference Gridorama last week. Senior quarterback Tanner Morris, who played running back against the Jackets in the scrimmage while Tanner Parks started at quarterback, led the Harlan offense, much like he did in last season’s game against Leslie County. Morris ran for 158 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles, scoring two of the Dragons’ three touchdowns. Harlan held a 243-74 advantage in rushing yardage in the game.
“He’s a very talented athlete. He can throw the ball, and he ran it all over us last year,” Melton said. “We struggled tackling. That’s one of our focuses. If we don’t slow Morris down it will be a long night for us.”
Donahue will have several options in the backfield in an effort to replace Cory Chorak, who ran for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles last season. Nick Powers and Peyton Dillman will share the carries at fullback with Kendal Brock, Matt Bailey and Holden Williams alternating at the two halfback slots.
Senior Peyton Pugh and Asher will be key players on the Leslie defense as the ends. Brandon Record, a senior, is back at cornerback. Several sophomores will comprise the linebacking corps.
Senior Tye Patrick is one of three starters back on Harlan’s defense and will lead the four-man linebacking corps that also includes Parks on the inside and Nick Powers and Matt Bailey on the outside.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 in Hyden.