SCOTT BAILEY/Daily Enterprise
Jake Middleton fought for yardage during Saturday's Citizen Tribune Kickoff Classic. Middleton had three touchdowns in the contest.
By John Middleton
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. – The last time Harlan County fell in the season opener, it advanced to the state semifinals in 2011. The Black Bears will be looking for a similar run this season after a 35-25 loss to Tennessee 5A power Morristown West in the Citizen Tribune Kickoff Classic on Saturday.
“We will be all right. I’m not worried about this loss as much as a lot of people might be,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “I remember losing to Pulaski one year and Southwestern another year, getting our brains beat out, and coming back to win the region. It doesn’t really matter. I think this one of the top two teams on our schedule.”
Harlan County had several opportunities on both offense and defense that could have changed the outcome, but failed to capitalize. The biggest momentum swing likely came near the start of the second half, when Hunter Lewis recovered a fumble at Morristown West’s 34 on the opening kickoff. Jake Middleton then carried the ball five straight times to the 1-yard line. However, the Morristown defense held stopping Middleton on third down, and quarterback Austin Maggard on fourth to preserve a 21-19 advantage.
“It was disappointing not punching it in there, then we had a fumble later. I think that changed the game. We should have got it in. I thought we did, but evidently we didn’t,” Larkey said.
After a pair of defensive stands, Morristown went up by two scores when quarterback Will Gardner tossed his third touchdown pass of the night, this time a 15-yard scoring strike to Tanner Lowery. Zippy Capps extended the lead to nine with the extra point. Harlan County cut the deficit to three on the ensuing drive as Maggard capped a 65-yard drive with a 5-yard quarterback keeper with 10:38 remaining. The two-point run was no good.
The Bears had opportunities to get off the field on Morristown West’s next possession, but were unable to stall the drive. Perhaps the best opportunity came on a fourth-and-one near midfield. However, Malachi Horton kept the drive alive with a six-yard run. Four plays later, Gardner connected with Drew Epps for a 14-yard score with 6:52 left in the contest. Capps’ extra point closed the scoring.
The teams traded touchdowns throughout the first half. Harlan County opened the scoring with a nine-play 67-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Middleton. Cole Wilson knocked in the extra point to make it 7-0.
Middleton served as the workhorse throughout much of the night, carrying the ball 35 times for 195 yards and three touchdowns.
Morristown wasted little time responding, as Horton raced 77 yards on the first play of the ensuing possession for a touchdown. Capps added the extra point to tie it at 7-7.
Middleton put the Bears back up with a 2-yard run to cap a 12-play drive that covered 66 yards. The extra point failed leaving the score at 13-7.
Both teams had the following drive halted by an interception, before Morristown regained the ball at its own 24. Horton then broke off another big gain, this time a 56-yard run that moved the ball to Harlan County’s 20. Two plays later, Gardner found Epps for the score. Capps’ extra point put the Trojans up by one.
After a pair of defensive stands, Middleton scored his third touchdown of the game with a 4-yard run with 1:48 remaining before the half. The two-point run was stopped and the Bears led 19-14.
However, Morristown regained the lead less than one minute later. After a long return, Gardner completed four of five passes on a drive that covered 52 yards, capped by a 9-yard touchdown to Epps with 50 seconds left. Capps nailed the extra point to close the first half scoring and make it 21-19.
The biggest question mark entering the game was likely Harlan County’s offensive line, but the Bears’ front exceeded expectations allowing the ground game to churn out 331 yards and four touchdowns on 59 carries.
Harlan County (0-1) returns to action Saturday against Lexington Tates Creek at 3 p.m. in the i-high Fayette County Football Frenzy at Bryan Station High School.