By John Middleton
There will likely be a playoff feel for the season opener at Harlan today as the Green Dragons will host Class A power Pikeville in a matchup suited for late in the postseason.
The Panthers advanced to the Class A semifinals last season, before falling to eventual champion Hazard, while Harlan was knocked out by Williamsburg in the second round of the playoffs. Both squads are expected to be among the top teams in 1A this season.
“They are a quality football team and have a quality football program. They have their football program where we want to be,” said Harlan coach J.B. Donahue. “We want to be considered with teams like Pikeville and Hazard, and this is a chance to find out if we can do that.”
The teams have developed one of the best rivalries in 1A in recent years, meeting in the postseason nine times since 1994.
“It has been a good rivalry. The last time I was over there was 1999 and that was a dandy game. We also had a good one last year,” Pikeville coach Chris McNamee said. “Coach Donahue does a good job with that program. They are similar to us as far as numbers. He gets his guys ready to play.”
Harlan featured one of the most prolific passing attacks in southeastern Kentucky in 2011, but Donahue said the Dragons will rely on a more balanced offense this season.
“I think we showed the ability to run the ball a little bit, so I want to see a little more balance offensively. I think our passing game will improve. We have playmakers there, and I think that is going to come around,” he said. “We have to try to use our weapons on the outside and open some lanes for Demarcus (Williams) and Cody (Logan), and hopefully our line will continue to show improvement.”
Offensively, Pikeville must replace standout Randy Maynard at quarterback. Maynard passed for 1,595 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago while adding 891 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Junior running back Chase Hall will take over as the leader of the offense after rushing 1,206 yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago.
“They have a great running game. The Hall kid is a good running back. They have a couple of good receivers on the outside and a good tight end,” Donahue said. “They have a good left-handed quarterback that throws the ball real well. Defensively, we have our hands full.”
With a senior-dominated squad, Harlan expects to join the elite Class A teams in southeastern Kentucky this season, and today’s contest is the first opportunity for the Dragons to do just that.
“It would show that we can play with a pretty good football team. Hopefully, we could build on that each week and get better each week,” Donahue said.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.