Two of southeastern Kentucky’s top teams will meet up Friday as the Harlan County Black Bears travel to Knox Central to take on the Panthers.
Knox Central is off to the best start in school history at 5-0. The 4A Panthers have wins over a trio of Tennessee opponents, along with South Laurel and Johnson Central.
“I feel like our conditioning has been a big factor. We put in a lot of work during the off season. Throughout the season, the fourth quarter has been big for us - we have outplayed teams then,” said former Evarts standout and current Knox Central coach Scott Russell. “The senior leadership been as good as it’s been in a while, and that has been a big factor.”
One of those senior leaders is standout running back/safety Jeffery Canady. The Mr. Football candidate will be a focal point for the Harlan County defense after rushing for 952 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 91 carries in five games. The Bears must also contain junior back Jonathan Gist, who has added 626 yards on the ground.
“He is one of those kids that come around every now then. He can do a little of everything for us,” Russell said. “Jeffery has been a great leader. He goes out and leads by example and always does what he is supposed to do.”
After allowing 89 points in the first two weeks, Harlan County’s defense has returned to its filthy animal ways as of late, surrendering just six points combined in blowout victories over Gate City, Va. and Lee, Va.
“This will be a bigger test than we have faced the last two weeks. Everybody has to step up a few notches this week and have a little more effort,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “We have to line up correctly and be aggressive toward the football.”
While the Bears will be focused on stopping Knox’s duo of Canady and Gist, the Panthers must attempt to slow Harlan County’s physical rushing attack led by senior Jake Middleton. Middleton has rushed for 782 yards on 97 carries this season.
“It’s not a big secret what Harlan County is going to do. They line up and try to take it to you. We have to play assignment football. We are going to do our best to load it up and slow them down,” Russell said. “You can’t let them get into great rhythm on offense, because they can five-yard you to death and take up whole quarter.”
The Bears defeated Knox Central 34-14 last season, but the No. 8 team in 5A enters the contest as an underdog in the eyes of many.
“A lot of people have picked us way ahead of some of the teams we have played, and that kind of gets in the minds of the kids. So, it’s kind of nice being then the underdog according to some people,” Larkey said. “It is tough playing at Knox Central. I feel like we are going into the game as underdogs, and we have to play hard.”
The trip to Knox Central will present the Bears with their first opportunity to face a southeastern Kentucky opponent.
“The last four games we have played were important, but the kids understand this is the most important game we have played so far,” Larkey said. “There is a lot of mountain pride on the line.”
Friday’s contest is among the top matchups in the region.The game has been selected as WYMT’s Game of the Week, and will be broadcast live on the CBS station.
“I think the exposure is great. Any time you are in a game of the week it means your programs are headed in right direction,” Russell said. “People are starting to notice us, and that is what you want in any program. It will be an exciting ball game with a big crowd.”