With coaches on the short list of the state’s most successful, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Belfry Pirates and Harlan County Black Bears are among the top programs in eastern Kentucky each year.
Belfry’s Phillip Haywood, who led the Pirates to last year’s 3A state championship, is first in Kentucky history with 377 victories. Harlan County’s Tom Larkey is ninth on the list, and third among active coaches, with 291 wins and could become the state’s eighth 300-win coach as early as this year’s postseason.
The two legendary coaches and their teams will square off again Friday in Belfry, but the rivalry between Haywood and Larkey goes back over 20 years.
“We’ve been friends for a long time. The first time we played was 1992 at the Pike County Bowl when I was at Rockcastle County,” Larkey said. “He’s running the same offense he ran then, and he’s a very good fundamental coach. He’s a good leader and keeps them motivated.”
“They are what I’d call a typical Harlan County team. They are well coached and do the little things well,” Haywood said. “They have good size and strength inside and their backs run hard.”
Belfry rallied for a 21-12 win last year at Coal Miners Memorial Stadium.
“We made some defensive errors that game where the kids didn’t read correctly and were in the wrong place,” Larkey said. “I thought we did fairly well offensively. We made some big plays on offense and got them called back on penalties. I think we had the team and athletes to win that game, but it doesn’t matter how good you are because Belfry will line up to play you and play to win.
Belfry lost its top two rushers and quarterback to graduation, but the Pirates never seem to be left without any weapons. Austin Hatfield, a senior who rushed for 703 yards last season, is the top rated player in District 8 as both a tailback and linebacker. Keaton Taylor, a junior who had 605 receiving yards a year ago, has shifted to quarterback.
Taylor had three catches for 55 yards in last year’s win at HCHS, including a touchdown pass from Sani Warren, who is now playing for the University of Pikeville.
Cole Bentley, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound sophomore, is a tremendous blocker at tight end. Cole Bentley, RayQuan Horton and Dakota Stanley also see action at tight end.
Defensive leaders for the Pirates include T.J. Dotson at end, Bentley at nose tackle, Horton at tackle, Stanley at linebacker and Xondre Willis and Cameron Catron in the secondary.
“We have to play a perfect football game,” Larkey said. “Hopefully, we can do a better job up front, including our blocking backs. We have to be determined every play to move the chains and punch it in. On defense, we have to read and do our assignments. Everyone has to do their job. I’m also hoping for a few breaks.”
Belfry got off to a great start to this season with a 29-7 win over Henry Clay last week in the Pike County Bowl.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” Haywood said. “We held on to the ball pretty good. We had been fumbling all over the place in our scrimmages. We felt we could move the ball if we could eliminate some of our mistakes, and, fortunately, we played fairly error free. They have a lot of speed, and we were lucky. The quarterback threw to the wrong guy a couple of times and we slipped off some blocks and made tackles when they had everybody else blocked. I think our kids know after looking at the film that we were fortunate. We played hard, and we were pleased with that, but we certainly have a long way to go.”
Harlan County bounced back from a 56-22 loss to Bryan Station in the season opener by defeating Clay County 51-14 last week.
“That loss was a little misleading. They moved the ball well. They just had some turnovers,” Haywood said. “They came back and had a nice game the second week. We expect a very physical and tough game out of them.”
Dylan Cornett, a junior tailback, has led the Bears in their first two games with 161 yards against Bryan Station and 129 against Clay County. Jake Ball had 52 yards against Bryan Station and 80 against Clay County. Bobby Huff ran for 95 yards against Bryan Station and 80 against Clay County with four touchdowns.